Feds release new airline guidance on emotional support animals

PHOTO: An emotional support animal waits with their owner.PlayShelly Yang/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH 5-year-old mauled by a pitbull at Portland airport

Airlines’ efforts to crack down on travelers abusing emotional support animal (ESA) policies got a little help from the federal government Thursday after Department of Transportation officials released their “final statement” on ESA priorities.

The DOT announced that airlines are not in violation of federal law if they ask travelers for documentation related to the animal’s training or behavior, so long as “it’s reasonable to believe that the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

The airline industry applauded the DOT’s decision.

“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,” officials with Airlines for America, an airline trade association, said in a statement.

PHOTO: An emotional support animal waits with their owner. Shelly Yang/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images, FILE
An emotional support animal waits with their owner.

In one of the most recent incidents, an Envoy Air flight attendant required five stitches two weeks ago after an emotional support dog bit him during an American Airlines flight from Dallas/Fort Worth to Piedmont Triad.

The Association of Flight Attendants has been pushing the DOT to strengthen ESA standards.

"We have had a huge problem with too many animals on our planes,” AFA President Sara Nelson told ABC News Thursday. "We’ve been begging the DOT for this guidance and we want to see even more. We want to see this as a clear rule for everyone across the industry."

According to the DOT, airlines will still be subject to enforcement action if they ban specific breeds of dogs on board flights. They are working on a more long-term plan to ensure that “dogs as a species are accepted for transport,” according to the DOT.

PHOTO: The US Department of Transportation building in Washington, DC. Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images, FILE
The US Department of Transportation building in Washington, DC.

This guidance seems to go against a controversial addition to Delta’s ESA policy a year ago to ban “pit bull type dogs” as service animals.

"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," Delta officials said in a statement to ABC News. "In 2018, Delta augmented its policies on service and support animals to reinforce our core value of putting safety and people first, always."

Airlines will have one month to change any policies that do not comply with the DOT’s guidance, but department officials did not specify which airlines’ policies would have to change.