Delta enacted a ban against “pit bull type dogs” as support animals last year following several onboard incidents. In one case, a passenger was left with a bloody face after another passenger’s dog attacked him.
But on Thursday, the federal Department of Transportation clarified the rules for airlines regarding animals traveling with passengers. The DOT said that airline employees can bar any animal they consider a safety threat. But they cannot issue a blanket ban against an entire breed of dog or cat, such as pit bulls.
The number of air travelers accompanied by animals has risen sharply in recent years as more people decide they need an animal with them for emotional support. But this has frequently led to various conflicts with fellow passengers and crew members – ranging from bites to animals relieving themselves in the cabin, according to the Associated Press.
In May, a Delta passenger filed a lawsuit against the airline after suffering injuries to his face and upper body when a fellow passenger’s dog bit him in June 2017 aboard an Atlanta-to-San Diego flight.
In another case last month, an American Eagle flight attendant needed stitches after a passenger's dog bit him on the hand.
The Association of Flight Attendants says the federal enforcement policy is a key step for dealing with a “mess of animals loose in the aircraft cabin.”
The Transportation Department plans to publish its full guidelines next week, and airlines will have 30 days after that to make their rules comply with the federal policy.
In addition to its ban on pit bulls in the cabin, Delta also bans all emotional support animals on flights longer than eight hours. United Airlines also bans comfort animals on long flights. Those rules will likely have to change, according to the AP.
Meanwhile, the DOT endorsed many other rules that airlines have adopted, such as barring extremely young animals and exotic ones including snakes from the cabin.
Delta said Thursday that it carried 245,000 service and support animals last year, about the same as 2017, up from around 100,000 in 2015. United's most recent figure, 76,000 for support animals only in 2017, was a 77 percent increase from the year before.
The flight attendants' union and an industry trade group both allege that many passengers fraudulently claim they need an emotional support animal to accompany them, according to the AP. Airlines are required to waive pet fees for comfort animals if the owner has a doctor's note vouching for the need to bring the animal aboard.
Other new federal regulations could be coming next summer but a senior DOT official declined to say what they might be, the AP reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this story