Tampa International: Keep your emotional support animal at home unless it’s flying

The new rule, which will be enforced with conversations, warnings and, in extreme cases, trespass notices, does not affect service animals trained to help people with disabilities.
Published February 14
Updated February 15

TAMPA — It's easy to understand why Joann Serkey brought her mini schnauzer Adrienne to Tampa International Airport Thursday morning.

When Serkey's son and grandchildren walked off the tram from their flight in, Adrienne, still on her leash, greeted the visitors wriggling in pure canine joy.

But just minutes before that happy reunion, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority voted to tighten its rule on bringing pets to the airport, including emotional support animals.

The new rule does not affect service animals — dogs individually trained to perform tasks to help people with physical, sensory, psychiatric or other disabilities — but it does affect emotional support animals, including comfort animals and therapy dogs that are not service animals as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The new rule: If your emotional service animal is not flying, leave it home. If it is flying, you have to put it in a carrier or keep it on a leash within 5 feet and under the control of its handler. You can't take it into the airport's restaurants.

Airport officials say the change is necessary because of the increasing number of "meeters and greeters" who bring pets to the airport. From 2016 to 2018, airport janitorial crews cleaned up 325 messes in the terminal. Eleven passengers and others have been injured, among them a Transportation Security Administration screener bit on the face. And five animals were seriously injured, some when their paws got caught in moving escalators.

Most of the animals that pass through the airport are dogs or cats, Tampa International spokeswoman Emily Nipps said. But there's one passenger who regularly flies with a rabbit in a carrier. And the airport has seen a miniature horse.

Last May, a white golden retriever named Eleanor Rigby gave birth to eight puppies at Airside F before a flight. The litter generated a ton of publicity but also a backlash from critics who contended that the dog didn't meet the criteria for being a service animal and thus represented a growing trend of people traveling with inadequately trained animals that don't belong on commercial jets.

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Nationwide, U.S. airlines fly more than 700 service animals a day, or more than 255,000 a year. In 2017, airlines also flew 751,000 emotional support animals, an 80 percent increase over the year before. In response, some airports have begun tightening their rules on animal travel. Last year, the airport in Portland, Ore. adopted a similar set of rules and authorized airport staff to issue citations that carried $250 fines.

In Tampa, the airport plans to start with a robust effort to educate passengers and their greeters about the new rule, followed up by conversations with individual travelers and pet-owning residents. On March 25, enforcement efforts will start to include verbal and written warnings, and, for repeat offenders, trespass violations issued by airport police.

"Tampa International Airport welcomes and will always welcome service animals that provide aid to individuals with disabilities on our campus," said John Tiliacos, the airport's executive vice president for airport operations and customer service. He noted that airlines are required by law to allow emotional support animals to fly, but have been "tightening the leash" themselves in the name of safety.

"In many cases, emotional support animals do not receive training and as such airport environments are often unfamiliar territory to many of these animals, which can place them and our guests at risk," he said. At the same time, the number of people just bringing pets the airport to greet incoming passengers is going up steadily. The Humane Society of Tampa Bay supports the change, he said.

At St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, signs on all entrance doors say, "No pets allowed. Service animals only." If pets are traveling with their owners, they must be in a carrier or on a leash.

As happy as Adrienne was to see the family, Serkey said she understood why Tampa International might see the need to tighten its rules.

"If it's been abused, you can't blame them," she said.

Tiliacos said airport administrators know about the bond between people and their pets, and it supports groups like Southeastern Guide Dogs, which it allows to train its dogs at the airport during off-hours. But he said they have to take steps to keep passengers safe and to keep the airport, which last year finished $1 billion in facility expansions and renovations, clean.

"My wife has five dogs, and she'd like to bring all five to the airport," he said. "No can-do."

Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times