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Southwest Airlines ‘reins in’ emotional support animals

August 16, 2018

When Southwest Airlines first launched, the carrier created a loosey-goosey image of a fun flyer on which the attendants even sang. Things tightened up considerably on August 14, when the airline announced more stringent rules for bringing “emotional support animals (ESAs)” aboard, effective September 17.

Southwest is limiting passengers to one emotional support animal per passenger—and peacocks, snakes, pigs, turtles, and other unconventional creatures are no longer allowed. Indeed, the carrier now says, the only emotional support animals that will be permitted on flights are dogs, cats, and miniature horses—and the animals must be kept on a leash or in a carrier at all times.

“We welcome emotional support and trained service animals that provide needed assistance to our customers,” said Senior Vice President of Operations and Hospitality Steve Goldberg. “However, we want to make sure our guidelines are clear and easy to understand while providing customers and employees a comfortable and safe experience.”

To create these policy changes, Southwest says it has reviewed the recent enforcement guidance issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT), evaluated feedback from passengers and employees, and spoken with “numerous advocacy groups” that represent customers with disabilities who travel with service animals.

Southwest also will introduce an enhancement that recognizes fully trained psychiatric support animals (PSAs) as trained service animals.—saying, “Southwest informally accepted PSAs as trained service animals in the past and the airline is pleased to formalize the acceptance of this type of service animal based upon customer feedback.”

PSAs are individually trained to perform a task or work for a person with a mental health-related disability. A credible verbal assurance will be sufficient to travel with a PSA.

All of this comes with a disclaimer: “For the safety of both Southwest’s customers and employees, all emotional support and service animals must be trained to behave in a public setting and must be under the control of the handler at all times. An animal that engages in disruptive behavior may be denied boarding.”

Southwest joins a number of other airlines that have tightened restrictions on emotional support animals. The spotlight fell on travelers with emotional support animals in January, when United Airlines refused to allow a woman to board a flight with an emotional support peacock.

Also on August 14, the Royal Caribbean cruise line reportedly said it will ban all emotional support animals. The cruise line said emotional support animals are not covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to CBS Miami. There is, however, an exception. ESAs noted on reservations prior to July 30 are protected and will be allowed to sail.

Other carriers, such as American Airlines, also have changed their rules—noting that between 2016 and 2017, the number of ESAs flying in their cabins increased by more than 40%. The animals specifically excluded by American include the following: goats, hedgehogs, ferrets, spiders; and non-household birds, such as chickens and hawks. Unclean animals, or animals with an odor, are banned, too.

Research contact: @SouthwestAir