Alaska Airlines will be the first American airline to ban emotional support animals following a new ruling from the Department of Transportation on service dogs.
Starting Jan. 11, 2021, “Alaska will only transport service dogs, which are specifically trained to perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability,” the airline said in a press release.
However, Alaska Airlines will continue to accept emotional support animals for any reservations booked before Jan. 11, 2021 for flights on or before Feb. 28, 2021.
The policy shift comes after the Department of Transportation changed the Air Carrier Access Act’s regulations on traveling by air with service animals. The new directive from the DOT, announced Dec. 2, clarifies which animals can be classified as service companions and which ones are simply pets.
The new rule defines a service animal as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
It also lets airlines “recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals,” and permits airlines to limit each passenger to two service animals.
“This regulatory change is welcome news, as it will help us reduce disturbances on board while continuing to accommodate our guests traveling with qualified service animals,” said Ray Prentice, director of customer advocacy at Alaska Airlines, said in the press release.
DOT’s policy change was a result of complaints from airline staff and passengers about people transporting unusual animals (such as a peacock) and misrepresenting their pets as service animals, as well as incidents of poorly behaved animals on flights.
Alaska Airlines will allow up to two service dogs per guest in the plane cabin, including psychiatric service dogs. To comply with the new rule, passengers must fill out a DOT form that will be available on Alaska Air’s website that asks them to attest that “their animal is a legitimate service dog, is trained and vaccinated and will behave appropriately during the journey,” according to the press release.
People who want to travel with their pets can still do so under the airline’s pet policy, which requires a $100 carry-on fee each way for an animal in an approved kennel or carrier.
Alaska Airlines is the first carrier to announce new policies for animals, but the federal rule changes were greeted with support from flight attendant unions.
“It is inappropriate to have untrained or undertrained service animals in confined public spaces such as the aircraft cabin,” Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in a statement. “APFA praises DOT for issuing a final rule that will create a safe and comfortable cabin environment for passengers and crewmembers alike.”
However, advocacy groups for individuals with disabilities expressed concern.
“The final rule erodes many of the protections afforded to people with disabilities traveling by air,” the National Disability Rights Network said in a statement. “The rule makes it more difficult for individuals to travel with a service animal by limiting the definition of service animals to just dogs and allowing airlines to treat emotional support animals as pets and in many cases to allow airlines to require advance notification and documentation from service animal users.”