United Airlines is tightening rules for fliers who bring emotional support animals on board by requiring proof of vaccinations and an "affirmation" of good behavior from veterinarians.
Under the updated policy effective March 1, emotional support animals will need owners to confirm they are trained to behave properly in public and take responsibility for all actions, United said.
A veterinarian also will need to sign off on a health and vaccination form and affirm there's no reason to think the animal poses a direct threat to others or will disrupt the flight.
"We know that some customers require an emotional support animal to assist them through their journey," United officials stated, but the numbers of animals flying has spiked by 75 percent and there's been a related uptick in "incidents."
Those "run the full spectrum," United spokesman Charles Hobart said. "It can be as innocuous as an animal defecating on board the aircraft to something more serious such as biting or attacking a different customer or flight attendant."
Hobart stressed the policy change, which was crafted over many months and comes in response to customer feedback, is not connected to United's refusal to allow New York performance artist Ventiko's emotional support peacock, Dexter, on a flight Jan. 28. The peacock raised safety and health concerns and the passenger had been notified in advance Dexter would not be permitted in the cabin, he said.
"We are doing this because we are dedicated to providing convenient and comfortable support to all our customers," Hobart said.
About 46,000 emotional support animals traveled on United planes in 2016; the number jumped to 76,000 in 2017.
Delta Air Lines enacted similar ESA rule modifications earlier in January.
The issue often pits passengers with physical, psychiatric and psychological disabilities who need their support animals against travelers suffering from allergies and asthma.
"We are hearing more stories from our community about people with allergies/asthma experiencing issues with animals on planes. This includes pets and emotional support animals in addition to service animals," said Sanaz Eftekhari, Director of Corporate Affairs for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
"A large part of the issue is that planes are not currently designed to accommodate air pollutants -- it is a closed system."
In 2014, the Daily Herald reported on Laura Pontarelli, an Elk Grove Village woman with severe allergies and asthma, having to give up her seat on an American Airlines flight at the last minute because a large, longhair service dog was boarding.
United's updated policies are "definitely a step in the right direction," said Laura's husband, John. "Unfortunately I think it will take someone getting seriously sick before this gets some serious attention."