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Airlines can’t bar pit bulls or other breeds from cabins, feds say

A month after a flight attendant was bitten by an emotional support animal, the U.S. Department of Transportation told the airline industry Thursday that carriers can’t bar certain dog breeds because airlines deem them dangerous, handing a victory to pit bull fans.

But the federal agency gave airlines the green light to require passengers to produce records on vaccinations and training to determine if a specific animal poses a threat on a plane. And bans on certain species — snakes, for instance — will be allowed to stand.

The effort by the Department of Transportation to clarify its policy on animals in planes is the latest chapter in the long-running saga over emotional support animals. An increasing number of airplane passengers have been bringing animals, some quite exotic, contending that they were needed for emotional support during flights; airlines suspected the passengers were merely trying to save money.

To control the proliferation, Southwest, JetBlue and United, among others, last year began tightening restrictions on airborne animals, particularly the unusual species. Delta Air Lines’ ban last year of all “pit bull-type dogs” as service animals or emotional support animals proved especially controversial.

An airline trade group and a flight attendants union voiced support for the federal agency’s efforts to clarify its rules regarding animals. The Department of Transportation is expected to begin enforcing the guidelines later this year after they are published as part of a formal “notice of proposed rulemaking.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA, called the new guidelines “an important step to address what has become a mess of animals loose in the aircraft cabin.”

Airlines for America, a trade group for the country’s largest carriers, said that many fliers have been fraudulently passing off their pets as emotional support animals to avoid having to pay animal transport fees.

“With over a million passengers bringing [emotional support animals] on flights last year, airlines and airports saw a sharp increase in incidents such as biting and mauling by untrained animals,” the group said. “The DOT’s guidance is an important step toward addressing this growing problem and ensuring a safer and healthier travel experience for all.”

United Airlines, one of the country’s biggest carriers, reported a 75% increase in emotional support animals on flights in 2017 compared with 2016. Along with the increase has come a rise in incidents of animals urinating, defecating, biting and barking on planes.

A passenger was mauled by a 50-pound dog on a Delta flight in 2017, and a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight in July had to get five stitches on his left hand after being bitten by an emotional support dog.

Federal law says that any airline passenger who relies on an animal to help quell anxiety or other emotional problems must be allowed to bring the emotional support animal on flights without charge. But the 1986 law fails to provide procedures for diagnosing a person who needs to be accompanied by an emotional support animal and doesn’t address what type of animals fliers can bring on planes.

Service animals must complete training to be assigned to aid someone who is blind or has some other physical disability.

Without clarity on what kind of animals are permitted, several airlines adopted their own restrictions.

JetBlue announced last year that it would allow only cats, dogs and miniature horses as emotional support animals. American Airlines banned several types of creatures, including hedgehogs, goats, ferrets, chickens, birds of prey and snakes. Southwest Airlines said it would allow only dogs and cats on leashes to be emotional support animals.

Delta’s pit bull ban came after a pit bull bit two Delta employees on a plane. Pit bull owners and their supporters collected tens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking the Atlanta-based carrier to reconsider the ban.

Such a restriction appears to violate the latest guidance by the Department of Transportation. “While the Enforcement Office is aware of high-profile cases involving pit bulls, airlines have not presented evidence that any particular breed is inherently more dangerous than others,” the agency said.

Still, the federal agency also said airlines can require passengers to produce documentation related to an animal’s vaccination, training and behavior to determine if a specific animal that is scheduled to fly is a “direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said the airline is still reviewing the new guidelines.

“Delta continuously reviews and enhances its policies and procedures for animals onboard as part of its commitment to health, safety and protecting the rights of customers with disabilities,” the airline said in a statement.