US airlines tighten leash on 'emotional support animals'

United Airlines move follows Delta's decision to implement new documentation requirements for owners hoping to fly with their animals. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Major US airlines are clipping the wings of "emotional support animals" hoping to take flight with their owners over safety concerns, as a would-be peacock passenger created a social media tizzy.

United Airlines - which this week turned Dexter the Peacock away at New Jersey's Newark Airport over health and safety concerns - announced Thursday it was reining in regulations on emotional support animals, citing a 75 percent jump in customers taking creatures on board and a spike in related incidents.

Federal guidelines support the right of passengers with disabilities to board with a variety of emotional support or service animals, but airlines can deny boarding to some exotic or "unusual" pets.

"The Department of Transportation's rules regarding emotional support animals are not working as they were intended, and we need to change our approach in order to ensure a safe and pleasant travel experience for all of our customers," the airline said in a statement.

Queried by AFP, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said the peacock kerfuffle had "no relevance whatsoever" to the policy change, which will go into effect March 1, and the timing "was a complete coincidence."

"We've been working on this policy for some time, well before this weekend's incident with Dexter."

He noted that the majestic bird with iridescent blue and green plumage was not allowed onboard under current policy, which prohibits from cabin travel for a menagerie including hedgehogs, rodents, non-household birds and "animals not properly cleaned or carrying a foul odor."

United's move follows Delta's decision to implement new documentation requirements for owners hoping to fly with their animals, a new policy it said "comes as a lack of regulation that has led to serious safety risks involving untrained animals in flight.".

'Comfort turkeys'

That airline said it had seen an 84 percent jump in reports of animal incidents since 2016, including an emotional support dog weighing 70 pounds (over 30 kilograms) that gave another passenger facial wounds requiring 28 stitches.

"Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders and more," Delta said.

"Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs." The Association of Flight Attendants heralded Delta's tightened requirements.

An American spokeswoman told AFP that the airline was reviewing its policy, while vowing to "continue to support the rights of customers, from veterans to people with disabilities, with legitimate needs."

Dexter the Peacock, meanwhile, was forced to make the trek to Los Angeles via car, according to the bird's Instagram account.

"Spent 6 hours trying to get on my flight to LA," read a caption next to an image of the peacock - which reportedly belongs to a New York-based performance artist - perched on a baggage trolley.

"Tomorrow my human friends are going to drive me cross country!"

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