Airlines are prohibited from banning specific breeds of dogs on board flights as service or emotional support animals, the US Transportation Department said Thursday, amid controversy over safety and passengers abusing the policies for emotional support animals.
The guidelines outlined by department officials appear to invalidate a recently-announced Delta Air Lines policy barring "pit bull type dogs" from traveling as service or emotional support animals.
Airlines are allowed a case-by-case determination of whether an animal is safe to travel, and airlines can also require people traveling with emotional support animals to check in at the airport lobby, rather than online, to allow an airline official to review the animal.
"The airline does have the authority to do an individualized assessment of any dog, every breed of dog, and if any dog -- no matter the breed -- is determined to pose, or deemed to pose a risk to the health or safety of other passengers, the airline is free to deny boarding," a department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters on a conference call explaining the change.
The Transportation Department is developing new long-term rules for passengers with service animals.
The department will not seek to invalidate any airline policies prohibiting animals other than dogs, cats and miniature horses -- the most common species of service animals -- from traveling as emotional support animals, the officials said.
Airlines will have one month to change any policies that do not comply with the interpretation. They did not specify which policies or airlines they believe are not in compliance.
The airline industry said it supports the DOT guidelines because of its concerns about passengers abusing the allowances for emotional support animals, or ESAs.
"The availability of fraudulent ESA credentials online has enabled people who are not truly in need of animal assistance to abuse the rules and evade airline policies regarding animals in the cabin," said Airlines for America, an industry group. "With over a million passengers bringing ESAs on flights last year, airlines and airports saw a sharp increase in incidents such as biting and mauling by untrained animals.
In one of the more recent incidents, a flight attendant who was bit by an emotional support animal two weeks ago required five stitches . The airline did not disclose what breed of dog was involved in that incident nor whether it believed the animal was actually an emotional support animal.
Delta said Thursday that it is reviewing changes. It instituted the pit bull ban "to reinforce our core value of putting safety and people first, always."
"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.
One union representing flight attendants also expressed concern about fraudulent claims of emotional support animal status. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said the guidelines are "an important step to address what has become a mess of animals loose in the aircraft cabin."
"Clear rules are necessary to ensure access to service animal assistance for people with disabilities and our veterans, while maintaining the safety, health and security of all passengers and crew onboard our planes," the group said in a statement.