Alaska Air Group tightens rules for support animals

Effective May 1, the three airlines of Alaska Air Group will tighten the rules for guests flying with emotional support and psychiatric service animals.

The company announced April 19 that guests traveling with emotional support or psychiatric service animals must provide animal health and behavioral documents, as well as a signed document from a medical doctor or mental health professional, at least 48 hours in advance of departure. The change, which applies to tickets purchased on or after May 1, does not apply to Alaska's policy for traditional service animals.

Emotional support dog Juan Carlos
"Alaska is committed to providing accessible services to guests with disabilities and ensuring a safe environment for all flyers," Ray Prentice, Alaska Airlines' director of customer advocacy, said in a statement announcing the new policy.

"We are making these changes now based on a number of recent incidents where the inappropriate behavior of emotional support animals has impacted and even injured our employees, other guests and service animals," he added.

The policy will apply to all three airlines that are part of Alaska Air Group (NYSE:ALK): Alaska, Horizon and Virgin America.

As Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) noted when it announced the tightening of its policy effective March 1, the overall number of emotional support and psychiatric service animals traveling by air has increased dramatically over the past few years.

Specifically, approximately 150 emotional support and psychiatric service animals travel on Alaska Airlines every day, and most cause no problems. That was the case with Juan Carlos, the emotional support dog pictured above, with whom I shared a recent flight. He was as quiet and well-behaved as he possibly could have been. However, there are notable exceptions.

“Over the last few years, we have observed a steady increase in incidents from animals who haven't been adequately trained to behave in a busy airport setting or on a plane,” Prentice said,noting that the increased incidents are what prompted the company to strengthen its policy. And that doesn't even address incidents like the woman who tried to bring her "emotional support peacock" on board a United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) flight with her in January.

For new bookings made on or after May 1, 2018, guests traveling with emotional support and psychiatric service animals must email or fax Alaska Airlines three completed documents, which will be available on starting April 30:
  1. Animal Health Advisory Form – On this form the flyer acknowledges Alaska Airlines' recommendation that all emotional support and psychiatric service animals travel with a veterinary-issued health certificate.
  2. Mental Health Form – Currently required, this is a letter issued by a mental health professional or medical doctor approving the use of an emotional support and psychiatric service animals.
  3. Animal Behavior Form – A signed affidavit affirming the emotional support or psychiatric service animal is trained to behave in public and that the owner accepts all liability for any injuries or damage to property.
Additionally, just like traditional service animals, emotional support and psychiatric service animals must be well-behaved in a public setting and under the control of their owner or handler at all times.

Guests with tickets purchased after May 1 who do not submit the required documentation 48 hours in advance, will be offered to fly with their pet under existing policies for travel in the cabin or in the temperature-controlled cargo compartment. Existing fleet and breed restrictions, as well as health certificate requirements, will apply.

My take

It is well past time that businesses in general started enforcing the rules about the types of animals allowed on their premises. Some, like hardware retailer Lowe's, are pet-friendly while others, including grocery stores and restaurants, are not. My hope is that the moves, first by Delta and now Alaska, will embolden those who are still waiting for a spine donor to start enforcing the policies they have in place.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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