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How Southwest Airlines’ new rules for service and support animals differ from other U.S. carriers

New Southwest Airlines emotional support animal policy allows only dogs and cats on leashes or in carriers
Southwest Airlines will roll out new requirements Sept. 17 for passengers who want to fly with a service or emotional support animal.
(Shelly Yang / Tribune News Service)

Southwest Airlines on Tuesday issued a new policy to go into effect Sept. 17 regarding service and emotional support animals on flights. The airline’s new rules narrow emotional support animals to cats and dogs only, impose a limit of one animal per passenger, and require passengers to keep them on a leash or in a carrier at all times.

But unlike other airlines, Southwest doesn’t require written documentation about the behavior or health of a service or support animal.

“We consulted with a national veterinary association and determined that, due to varying vaccination requirements across municipalities and states, it would be difficult to determine a consistent standard,” Southwest Airlines spokesman Brian Parrish wrote in an email.

In contrast, United Airlines, which revised its policy earlier this year, requires passengers traveling with psychiatric or emotional support animals to sign an Animal Behavior Form and provide a Veterinary Health Form signed by a licensed veterinarian at least 48 hours in advance of travel, according to its website.

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Southwest only requires passengers with emotional support animals to provide a current letter attesting that you need to travel with the animal from a medical doctor or licensed mental health professional.

United also requires such letters for passengers who want to travel with support animals.

When it comes to trained service animals — such as guide dogs for blind fliers and psychiatric support animals that perform tasks for a person — Southwest will accept “credible verbal assurance” from the passenger.

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“If an animal is presented as a service animal and does not display the behavioral characteristics of a trained service animal, including being under the handler’s complete control, we will not accept the animal for travel as the customer’s assurance would not be credible,” Parrish wrote in an email.

In other words, the animal better be able to demonstrate how it performs tasks for you in front of Southwest’s agents. Also, any animal behaving badly may not be allowed to board the plane.

Alaska, Delta and United all revised their in-flight policies after recent incidents on planes in which support or service animals attacked another passenger or caused problems.

An L.A. Times story on Tuesday said: “The U.S. Department of Transportation announced in May that it wouldn’t take action against airlines that impose restrictions on passengers traveling with emotional support animals. That announcement was significant because the Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to allow passengers who believe they need the emotional support of an animal to bring the animal on a commercial flight without paying an extra charge.”

U.S. carriers also provide travelers with rules regarding animals arriving at certain destinations.

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New Southwest Airlines emotional support animal policy allows only dogs and cats on leashes or in carriers

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