Southwest Airlines Just Made a Long-Awaited Change, and It Looks Like the End of an Era

This a story about Southwest Airlines catching up to its competitors.

Quick background: Just a few short years ago, one of the big challenges facing Southwest and other airlines was the proliferation of passengers who insisted on bringing emotional support animals aboard.

The airlines had little choice in the matter. Federal rules allowed people to be accompanied by service animals on planes, but didn’t actually define “service animal.”

The result? Passengers brought “comfort turkeys, gliding possums known as sugar gliders, snakes, spiders, and more” aboard as their emotional support animals, according to  an industry report. 

That in turn led to a “surge” in incidents of “barking, biting, nipping, growling, and fighting” in passenger cabins, according to the same report.

Last week, however, Southwest Airlines took the big step of basically banning most so-called emotional support animals from their cabins.

“Effective March 1, 2021,” Southwest said in a statement, “the airline will accept only trained service dogs for travel and will no longer transport emotional support animals,” adding:

With this revision, Southwest Airlines will only allow service dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability to travel with the Customer.

The types of disability include a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability and only dogs will be accepted (including those for psychiatric service) — no other species will be accepted as a trained service animal. 

Now, of course Southwest is not out on its own with this new policy. As I wrote previously, American, Delta, and United Airlines, along with smaller airlines, changed their rules earlier this month.

Back then, Southwest told me it didn’t have any changes to announce. At least one report suggested some travelers hoped that Southwest, “known for its independent spirit, might not join in” on the ban. Alas, now they’ve caught up to the others.

It all comes in response to U.S. government’s revision of its own rules in December, establishing a definition for service animals, allowing airlines to require proof that they’re actually trained, and giving airlines the option to classify emotional support animals as pets.

Of course, some people legitimately need real service animals. They’re still allowed.

But this rule change should make life easier for flight attendants, who had to deal with the animals — including situations where passengers and flight attendants were bitten or otherwise hurt by them. (Examples:  here,  here and  here.)

Now, I know this whole thing seems like five crises ago, so to speak. It is one heck of a time to be in the airline industry right now. 

Just in this past week, we’ve have had so many other developments: the CDC requiring all airline passengers (and people on other forms of public transportation) to wear masks, for example, which should hopefully remove some burdens from flight attendants’ shoulders.

Add to that the giant losses that most airlines posted recently (Southwest had its first annual loss in almost 50 years), the debate over whether to block middle seats, and as Southwest president Tom Nealon put it, the prospect of a “ goat rodeo” if the government were to require airlines to test passengers for Covid prior to domestic flights.

All of which makes it feel a bit better to reach the end (apparently) of the emotional support animal story.

One more point: I’m unaware that there was ever any real impact on the airlines’ bottom line because of this issue. Passengers who were going to fly might have complained, but it wasn’t as if they could go to another airline that had stricter rules; they all had to follow federal law. 

But here, the airlines were able to work together, ultimately for the benefit of employees who didn’t want to have to police this issue among all their other responsibilities. It took years to resolve, and if you’re a business leader in any industry, I think the lesson is worth taking to heart.

When it comes to advocating for changes to make your employees’ lives easier, keep at it, show them you’re on their side, and be the type of leader who seeks to solve problems where you can.

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