Photo of airplane in the cloudsAirlines transport more than 2 million animals each year. In recent years, airlines have begun to allow more animals to travel with passengers in the cabin. Many of the pets are classified as emotional support or comfort animals. They are allowed to sit out of carriers, often on the passenger’s lap.

This put people with asthma and animal allergies at risk for symptoms — 30,000 feet in the air.

On Dec. 2, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued new rules no longer recognizing emotional support animals as service animals. The rules are part of a revision to the Air Carrier Access Act.

The new rules define a service animal only as a dog trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. These include physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disabilities.

What do the new rules mean?

Airlines may now consider emotional support animals as pets. This could lead the way for airlines to ban pets on flights altogether. Airlines could also require pets to stay in carriers under the seat in front of the passenger instead of on laps. This would reduce contact with passengers.

Patient advocacy organizations including Allergy & Asthma Network provided comments to DOT. They addressed the impact of animals in cabins on people with respiratory conditions.

Airlines also asked DOT to review the issue. Many passengers were referring to their pets as emotional support animals solely so the pet could travel for free.

The new DOT rules will go into effect 30 days after date of publication in the federal register.

What are new rules for service animals?

The new rules:

  • Allow airlines to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard to two.
  • Allow airlines to require a service animal fit within its owner’s foot space on the plane.
  • Allow airlines to require a service animal be harnessed or leashed at all times.
  • Continue to allow airlines to refuse service animals that are aggressive or threatening.

What airline policies does Allergy & Asthma Network support?

  • No pets beside trained service dogs in the cabin.
  • No more than 4 pets per flight.
  • Pet carriers required.
  • Relocation of a passenger with asthma or a pet allergy permitted.

How can people with asthma and allergies stay safe on airplanes?

Airlines cannot guarantee an allergen-free cabin. Here are some ways to stay safe:

  • Request to sit as far away as possible from pets when making a reservation.
  • Wear a mask or nasal filters to block pet allergens.
  • Pre-medicate with an antihistamine or nasal spray.
  • Carry a quick-relief albuterol inhaler if you have asthma.