Delta Air Lines tightens leash on comfort animals on flights beginning March 1

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A service dog strolls through the isle inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport.

In this April 1, 2017 file photo, a service dog strolls through the isle inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport while taking part in a training exercise, in Newark, N.J. | AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File

AP

Rather than wait for federal regulation, Delta Air Lines unveiled its own tighter rules recently for passengers flying with emotional-support animals that increasingly disrupt flights.

The rules come as the airline carries about 700 assistance animals each day that the carrier says are increasingly misbehaving by wandering the cabin, defecating or even biting passengers.

Delta’s rules for traveling with service and comfort animals starting March 1 require documentation confirming the safety and necessity of the animal 48 hours before departure.

The passenger must provide a veterinary health form or vaccination record for either category of animals. For comfort animals and psychiatric-service animals, the passenger must also provide:

— A letter signed by a doctor or licensed mental-health professional stating the passenger’s need for the animal.

— A signed letter stating the animal is trained to behave without a kennel.

“This new policy is our first step in better protecting those who fly with Delta with a more thoughtful screening process,” said John Laughter, Delta’s senior vice president for corporate safety, security and compliance.

Delta carries 180 million passengers a year with about 250,000 service or emotional-support animals.


The Americans with Disabilities Act calls designated dogs and miniature horses as service animals, which are trained often to assist the deaf or blind. But the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act opened the door to a greater variety of animals to accompany a disabled passenger with a doctor’s note in any seat, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or another area needed for emergency evacuation.

Passengers who increasingly bring along comfort animals say they calm them during stressful flights, or alert them to problems such as high or low blood sugar.

Delta acknowledged that trained animals typically behave. But the carrier said untrained animals regularly stretch across seats or move about the cabin during flight.

Because of a vague definition for what qualifies, Delta said passengers have brought turkeys, possums and snakes on planes as comfort animals.

Delta said it won’t accept those critters as comfort animals any more — or other exotic animals such as hedgehogs, ferrets, reptiles or anything with tusks or hooves.

Airlines aren’t required to accommodate unusual service animals, such as snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders, according to the department.

Comfort animals can be discomforting to others. Incidents of animals urinating, defecating and biting, and behaving more aggressively with growling and lunging, have increased dramatically in recent years, according to the airline.

In one highly publicized case in June, an emotional-support dog bit a neighboring passenger in the face during the boarding of a flight from Atlanta to San Diego.

“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” Laughter said. “We are committed to consistently improving our policies, prioritizing the safety of all Delta customers and employees.”

The Transportation Department hosted seven months of negotiations in 2016 to develop regulations to make flights more accessible for the disabled. But the panel of airline and advocacy experts was unable to reach a consensus on narrowing the definition of what qualifies as a comfort animal.

The department set a goal of proposing a regulation by July 2017, but missed that deadline and now expects to begin collecting comment about the definition in July.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the union “adamantly supports” Delta’s move. Better regulations are needed to protect the rights of the disabled, while untrained animals risk the safety, health and security of other passengers and crew, she said.

“We are seeing more and more animals in the cabin and it appears there is growing abuse of the system,” Nelson said. “We are hearing a public outcry to stop the abuse.”

Delta said it developed its policy with feedback from a 15-member advisory board of advocates who are frequent fliers with a range of disabilities.

“We have received extensive customer feedback through calls, emails and social posts – many from among those within the disability community – urging Delta to take action,” Laughter said.

Bart Jansen, USA TODAY

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