Dexter, the emotional support peacock, will never take another flight.
Dexter died unexpectedly in 2018, some months after I wrote about him in this space. But there will be no other peacock to take up his mantle, either. The Department of Transportation recently finalized a rule that will allow airlines to limit animals in passenger cabins to certified service dogs. Emotional support animals – like Dexter – will be subject to airlines’ rules for pets. As travelers contemplate a return to the skies in a post-pandemic world, this is a welcome bit of common sense.
On Dec. 2, the DOT announced the change to its Air Carrier Access Act rules, after a process that drew more than 15,000 public comments. The new rule narrowly defines a “service animal” as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” including psychiatric conditions. It also states outright that the department no longer considers “emotional support animals” to be service animals.
This change recognizes a distinction that already existed. Service animals do specific tasks for people to help ensure their health. These might include alerting the person to the onset of a seizure, helping someone who is deaf or blind navigate their surroundings, or guiding someone experiencing a panic attack to a safer location. By contrast, emotional support animals are not trained to provide specific help, or as the DOT puts it, “perform tasks.” As I observed in 2018, there was no federally recognized standard for certifying emotional support animals. While some professionals do genuinely suggest animal therapy – in which the animal is not trained for particular tasks, but rather provides companionship – for certain patients, the vague nature of the label led a minority of animal owners to try to use it to circumvent rules about flying with their pets. In some cases, it also led to genuine confusion. The new standard is narrower, but clearer.
Besides narrowing the definition of a service animal, the new rule allows airlines to require a form developed by the DOT attesting to a service dog’s health, behavior and training. Airlines must, however, allow travelers with service animals to use online check-in if they like. The rule will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, which likely means early January 2021.
The new rule has several benefits. First, it makes expectations clearer for airlines and passengers alike. Only dogs can be service animals, and they are only service animals if they have met specific training requirements. On the other hand, airlines can’t differentiate between service animals trained to help with physical conditions, such as blindness, and those trained to help with mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The change also brings the DOT’s definition more in line with the definition of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Travelers who rely on their trained service dogs to navigate the world will be less likely to run into misplaced skepticism that their service animal is an undercover pet. The department noted that part of its motivation for the rule change was that an increasing number of complaints about emotional support animals suggested the arrangement had “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.”
The DOT acknowledged that the new rule likely means fewer animals in cabins overall. This could cut down on instances of misbehavior and potential allergy concerns for other passengers. But the rule doesn’t mean there will be no pets in the cabin at all. Airlines can choose to allow animals besides service dogs in the cabins if they wish. At this writing, all the major U.S. carriers allow cats and small dogs in the cabin, subject to restrictions. Delta Air Lines also allows “household birds,” as long as they can fit in the carry-on area beneath the seat in front of the passenger. Alaska Airlines allows rabbits under the same circumstances. All the airlines charge human passengers a fee for bringing along a furry (or feathered) friend, however. These range from $95 to $125 per flight.
As for larger and more exotic animals, they are likely to have to look for other means of travel, regardless of any emotional support they may provide. The Department of Transportation has effectively rendered peacocks flightless once again.