WASHINGTON — David Green says his 6-pound Chihuahua is a “walking medicine bottle” that calms his anxiety and depression while traveling.
Green, of Santa Monica, California, told the Transportation Department that restricting emotional-support animals on airlines could prevent him taking flights. He urged officials to streamline and define which animals should be allowed to share airline cabins with passengers with disabilities.
But Jane Kaiser, whose severe asthma is sometimes triggered by dogs, said boarding a plane with a dog in the cabin “is very scary” as she wonders if her rescue inhaler will be enough to get an asthma attack under control.
“It seems like I should have some rights, like a right to breathe, without being exposed to animals,” said Kaiser, of Kamas, Utah.
More than 4,400 comments poured in by the Sunday deadline established by the department in May when it asked for suggestions about potential changes or restrictions on animals allowed in the cabin with passengers. The regulations cover trained service animals and untrained emotional-support animals also called comfort animals.
The review came as airlines reported an explosion in the number and variety of animals traveling with passengers.
U.S. passenger airlines estimated they transported 784,000 pets, 751,000 comfort animals and 281,000 service animals last year, according to Airlines for America, a trade group representing most of the largest carriers. The figures rose from 709,000 pets, 481,000 comfort animals and 227,000 service animals in 2016, according to the group.
For example, American Airlines said it carried 155,790 comfort animals last year, a 48 percent rise from 105,155 a year earlier.
The varieties have grown beyond dogs and cats to include monkeys, pigs, ducks and wallabies. United Airlines drew attention in January for rejecting Dexter the peacock for a trip. Airline workers contend that some passengers are designating pets as comfort animals to avoid fees of $75 to $125 to bring pets on flights.
The industry – Airlines for America, the Regional Airline Association and the International Air Transport Association – urged the department to prohibit comfort animals and recognize only trained dogs as service animals.
“We therefore urge DOT to expeditiously adopt a limited set of common-sense changes to its service animal regulations to enable airlines to curb fraud and abuse, protect health and safety in air transportation and ensure the orderly operation of flights,” the carriers said in their joint statement.
But the department was unable to reach a negotiated compromise in the emotional debate in 2016 between airlines, disabilities-rights groups and passengers. Travelers who rely on the animals don’t want to give them up.
“Service animals and emotional support animals play a vital role in the lives of many people with disabilities,” said a joint statement from groups including the American Association of people with Disabilities, National Council on Independent Living and the National Disability Rights Network. “When unjustified restrictions are place on access for these animals, the people with disabilities who depend on their assistance are harmed.”
The regulatory uncertainty stems from how airlines are treated under the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act recognized dogs and miniature horses as trained service animals. But that law explicitly doesn’t apply to airlines.
Instead, the Air Carrier Access Act said service animals could fly in the cabin with passengers, while also opening the door to broader range of emotional-support animals, which assist passengers with mental-health issues. Airlines typically require travelers to have a note from a medical provider describing the need for an emotional-support animal and documentation of the animal’s health.
The department offered airlines guidance in 2003 saying they didn’t have to accept reptiles, ferrets, rodents or spiders as emotional-support animals. But the guidance said pigs and monkeys, for example, should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, which they have begun to make more restrictive.
While the department opened comment, advocates for psychiatric service animals said they should be lumped with trained service animals for the blind and deaf, rather than continue to be treated as emotional-support animals.
Dogs can be trained to wake handlers from nightmares, alert them when someone is approaching from behind and remind them to take medication, according to Stephanie Carmody, general counsel at American Humane. Distinguishing the trained animals discriminates against owners with mental rather than physical ailments, she said.
Nearly all the comments that poured in to the department dealt with dogs. But one man asked how to get a reptile called a bearded dragon approved.
Finding a compromise could be difficult for the department, with strong feelings on all sides among the comments to the department.
Jessica Pollak of Casselberry, Florida, said she has been traveling for seven with a French bulldog named Charlie, who helps her remain calm despite suffering anxiety and depression.
"I firmly believe that the regulations regarding Emotional Support Animals in both air travel and housing situations are currently fair and should not be changed," she said.
Phillip Haskins of San Antonio, Texas, said post-traumatic stress syndrome hinders his traveler, but that he is always at peace with his service cat.
“With my emotional support cat I can fly sober secure and feel safe,” he said.
David Hay of New York City said his 80-pound Labrador retriever keeps him grounded during flights, despite an extreme fear of heights. The dog and American Airlines workers have each behaved admirably on flights back and forth to Los Angeles, he said.
“I would be greatly inconvenienced if the rules regarding his travel were changed such that he was not able to fly with me in the future,” he said.
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America said more than 25 million Americans have asthma and 50 million have allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regulations need to balance the rights of people with asthma against those with animals, according to the group.
“Working together we can eliminate abuse while meeting the needs of passengers traveling with legitimate, medically necessary service animals and protecting the health of millions of asthma and allergy sufferers,” said Kenneth Mendez, the foundation’s CEO.
Each year about 3,600 people die from asthma, according to the group. Sharon Armstead of Cedar Park, Texas, described needing an inhaler repeatedly on a flight from Austin to Miami because other passengers brought three or four dogs. On another flight with five dogs, she took Benadryl and used her Albuterol inhaler.
“I should not have to drug myself to fly,” Armstead said.
Other travelers were unsympathetic to comfort animals at all.
“If your emotional state is seriously compromised by the idea of flying on an airline, you owe it to your fellow passengers to find alternate means of transportation,” said Donald Clarke of York, South Carolina.
“No emotional support animals or psychiatric support animals should be allowed on airplanes,” said Jeanne Wilson of Falls Church, Virginia. “This whole emotional support animal scam was initiated when airlines raised the price of transporting animals. Untrained animals of any type are a hazard to all people in the airport and especially in the confined space of an airplane.”
A significant portion of the comments blasted Delta for banning “pit bull type dogs” effective July 10, which the airline announced separately from the department gathering comment. American, Delta and United each revised their policies this year to restrict comfort animals, and the pit-bull ban followed a couple of incidents on Delta flights were passengers were bitten.
“Incidents have included animals running freely about the cabin, urinating and defecating, and engaging in aggressive behavior such as barking, growling or biting,” Rich Swayze, Delta’s director of government policy, told the department in comments about the general policy.
“This creates very real threats to the safety and health of passengers, cabin crew and other animals that may be on board,” including one passenger needing 28 stitches after being attacked in June 2017 by a psychiatric service dog sitting on its owner’s lap, he said.
Groups for the disabled argued that behavior rather than breeds should be prohibited.
Debra Drew, a small-animal veterinarian educated at the University of Florida, said she hasn’t been bitten by a pit bull in 24 years on the job. But she has been bitten by toy breeds carried in the cabins of planes without restrictions.