In January, Delta Airlines announced that it would be introducing newer, enhanced requirements for travelers seeking to bring their support or service animals on board.
According to a statement from the airline, "This comes as a result of a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight. The new requirements support Delta’s top priority of ensuring safety for its customers, employees and trained service and support animals, while supporting the rights of customers with legitimate needs, such as disabled veterans, to travel with trained animals."
Delta reported that it has seen upward of 250,000 animals on flights per year, including customers who attempted to bring comfort turkeys, sugar gliders, and even spiders on board. (The airline does not accept exotic or "unusual" service or support animals.)
With the increase in these comfort or service animals being taken on flights, Delta said it has seen an "84 percent increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, including urination/defecation...and biting. In 2017, Delta employees reported increased acts of aggression (barking, growling, lunging and biting) from service and support animals, behavior not typically seen in these animals when properly trained and working."
Because of these issues, beginning March 1, passengers who want to travel with their service or comfort animal must "show proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance."
The person must also provide "a letter prepared and signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, those with psychiatric service animals and emotional support animals will also need to provide a signed document confirming that their animal can behave to prevent untrained, sometimes aggressive household pets from traveling without a kennel in the cabin."
In addition to continuing to provide in-cabin travel for service and support animals without charge, Delta will also offer a Service Animal Support Desk for customers who will be traveling with their service or support animal.
The airline's decision to enforce these stricter guidelines has been applauded by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Dr. Michael J. Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, told petMD the association supports the decision because, in addition to maintaining the safety of pets and passengers alike, it will help weed out animal assistance fraud.
"When companion animals are misrepresented as assistance animals by their owners, in an effort to gain access to public spaces, human and animal health risks can be created," Topper said. "In addition, poor behavior, such as aggression or inappropriate elimination, by untrained pets on airplanes may result in additional regulation that impedes the ability of those with legitimate need to have assistance animals accompany them."
While Topper acknowledged that creating guidelines when it comes to assistance animals can be tricky, "to prevent confusion, it is helpful if organizations and companies, such as Delta, use definitions that are consistent with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This also makes it more likely that protections for people with disabilities in the ADA are upheld by any new policies."
He also noted that Delta may run into issues when it comes to psychiatric service animals and the paperwork the company is now requiring for animals on its flights. "Unlike emotional support animals, psychiatric service animals are defined as service animals under the ADA," Topper explained. "A solution could be for Delta to group psychiatric service animals with trained service animals in their policy, instead of considering them to be emotional support animals."
Ultimately, the best thing Delta or any airline can do when it comes to this issue is to comply fully with the ADA's rules and guidelines. "Using the same definitions as the ADA for the each type of assistance animal when creating new policies would reduce confusion among consumers and provide an optimal experience for those flying with assistance animals," Topper said. "This way, new requirements put in place by Delta or other airlines are more likely to accomplish the main goals of preventing fraud, reducing risks to animal and public health, and protecting passengers with disabilities using genuine assistance animals."
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