American Airlines Revises Pet-Friendly Policy for Passengers Who Fly With Their Emotional Support Animals

A furry pooch smiling on board a flight with its owner.
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Delta and Alaska Airlines are some of the carriers joining American Airlines amid policy.

Ronica Froese wonders if she will ever get to fly again with her beloved traveling companion, Freckle Butt Fred, a 115- pound miniature horse, since American Airlines will no longer allow emotional support animals to travel on its planes other than as carry-on or in the cargo, CBS News reported. 

American Airlines made the announcement this week. The carrier is adopting a Department of Transportation rule that goes into effect on Monday, Jan. 11. For passengers, this means that starting on that date, American will no longer authorize new travel for animals that do not meet that definition, such as emotional support animals, the airline announced Tuesday in a news release. 

The DOT has defined a service animal as a dog trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability, a narrower definition than in the past, CBS reported. The airline said existing bookings that involve emotional support animals will be honored through Feb. 1, when the company's new policies go into effect.

Additional carriers are starting to adopt the new policy as well. Alaska Airlines said a week ago it would no longer accept emotional support animals. Delta is another airline to follow suit and put in place such restrictions, Travel + Leisure reported.

For years, the DOT allowed passengers to fly with their pets as long as the person had a doctor's note that indicated that the passenger needed the animal for emotional support. 

Airlines reportedly believed some passengers abused the rule to bring an assortment of animals on board that included cats, turtles and pigs. In 2018, police were called to a Frontier Airlines flight where woman wanted to fly with an emotional support squirrel, while United Airlines once bounced a passenger who wanted to bring a peacock on board, CBS reported.

In December, the DOT reversed its long-held position. The recent switch was partly based on an increase in service animal complaints from passengers with disabilities, misbehavior by emotional support animals, a lack of clarity around the definition of "service animal" and disruptions caused by "requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft,” reported the news outlet. 

American stated that those animals that no longer qualify as service animals can travel as carry-on pets or in the cargo provided they meet the airline's requirements. However, it is not free. The airline will collect a pet fee ranging from $125 to several hundred dollars for transporting pets, according to the Associated Press.

"We're confident this approach will enable us to better serve our customers, particularly those with disabilities who travel with service animals, and better protect our team members at the airport and on the aircraft," Jessica Tyler, president of cargo and vice president of airport excellence for American, said in a statement to CBS. 

Froese, who has an incurable autoimmune disease, recalled a American Airlines flight that had a layover in Dallas, and has traveled on four other planes with Freckle Butt Fred right by her side. 

“It’s probably going to be the one and only time Fred and I are going to fly, because my gut tells me the Department of Transportation is going to say you can never fly legally again,” Froese told CBS News.

The revised proposal may mean that Froese and Freckle Butt Fred may need to consider road trips going forward.