Alaska Airlines Clamps Down on Emotional Support Animals on Flights

The airline says it will permit service dogs only, following a move by the U.S. Department of Transportation to reclassify the types of service animals allowed on flights.
Alaska Airlines said it would disallow emotional support animals on its flights starting Jan. 11. By Allyson Waller
Dec. 29, 2020

If you’re flying on Alaska Airlines starting in mid-January, don’t plan on boarding with your support pig or miniature horse.

The airline, acting in the wake of new federal guidelines aimed at reining in a range of at times exotic animals that passengers have brought onto commercial planes as emotional support animals, kept it simple in announcing on Tuesday what it would allow: only qualified service dogs that are able to lie on the floor or be held in one’s lap.

Ray Prentice, director of customer advocacy for Alaska Airlines, which said it was the first major airline to publicly change its animal policy in light of the updated federal guidelines, said the airline’s decision was a positive step.

“This regulatory change is welcome news, as it will help us reduce disturbances onboard, while continuing to accommodate our guests traveling with qualified service animals,” Mr. Prentice said in a statement.

Alaska Airlines said emotional support animals do not have the same level of training as service animals.

The airline said that starting Jan. 11, it would permit only service dogs that are trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

A Dec. 2 ruling from the U.S. Department of Transportation that amended the department’s Air Carrier Access Act grants airlines the authority to classify emotional support animals as pets rather than service animals. Under the ruling, only dogs that meet specific training criteria are allowed as service animals for people with physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disabilities.

The new regulatory ruling has been criticized by advocates for disability rights, who said the restrictions would weaken protections for people with disabilities by limiting the definition of a service animal. According to formal guidance released by the Department of Transportation in 2019, common service animals include dogs, cats and miniature horses.

“While it is no secret that we still remain far from a truly accessible transportation system in this country, the D.O.T. rule will only serve to exacerbate existing inequities for people with disabilities participating in air travel and will instead almost exclusively accommodate the interests of the airline industry,” Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said in a statement this month.

Despite the criticism, airlines and others in the air travel industry, such as the lobbying group Airlines for America, have celebrated the recent changes, saying they will do more to diminish the misbehavior of animals on flights and help deter individuals who abuse rules concerning service animals.

In the past, passengers have tried to travel with a variety of animals, from the mundane to the downright unusual, such as pigs, monkeys and birds. (One unsuccessful attempt even included a peacock.)

The Americans With Disabilities Act defines dogs and miniature horses as service animals “that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” Under the act, dogs that provide only emotional support are not designated as service animals.

Alaska Airlines’ revised policy will allow for a maximum of two service dogs per guest and will include psychiatric service dogs. Passengers will also have to submit a form, developed by the Department of Transportation, that confirms that a dog is a service animal and has received appropriate training and vaccinations.

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