In the 30 years he’s worked at Alaska Airlines, Ray Prentice has never actually heard of a miniature horse boarding one of its flights.
But with a new policy that went into effect last week, the airline has left the possibility open. Miniature horses have joined dogs and cats as one of the three animals expressly allowed on board as service animals, which are trained to assist someone with a disability.
A miniature horse — usually between 2 and 3 feet tall and weighing between 70 and 100 pounds — would most likely be able to stand only in front of passengers seated in the front row of the cabin, said Prentice, the airline’s director of customer advocacy.
While the use of miniature horses as service animals is thought to be quite rare, some people may prefer them to other animals. The horses are sturdy, have longer life spans, can help those with mobility problems and have been known to guide people who are blind. Others may seek out the horses because they have religious objections to using dogs.
“I can only name three people I know in the United States that use them. They are not common,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit that supports travelers with disabilities. “But they can perform functions like lifting, carrying, pulling, pushing. A dog or a horse is either going to pick stuff up for you, or it’s going to guide you.”
Miniature horses were not barred from Alaska Airlines flights before this week. Previously, the airline told people what they could not bring, in a list that grew as passengers tried to carry on an increasingly exotic menagerie: no hedgehogs or ferrets; no snakes, insects or rodents; and no sugar gliders, a nocturnal species of possums.
By naming the animals allowed onboard, and by extension barring all others, the airline is trying to curtail an increase in reports of animal misbehavior.
News reports have highlighted particularly egregious examples. In January, a woman tried unsuccessfully to board a flight at Newark Liberty International Airport with a peacock that she described as her emotional support animal. In June, a 70-pound support dog mauled a passenger on a Delta flight in Atlanta, biting his face multiple times.
Disability rights advocates, airlines and regulators all agreed that some passengers were trying to circumvent the rules and sneak pets and other animals onto planes under the guise of necessity. Lipp said support animals can typically fly for free, whereas people must pay fees to travel with pets.
“People were abusing it,” Lipp said.
According to the industry group Airlines for America, the estimated number of emotional support animals aboard flights grew to 751,000 in 2017 from 481,000 in 2016. The group did not have data on the prevalence of miniature horses specifically.
Other airlines allow miniature horses to fly as service animals, including Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, which also permits service monkeys and service birds.
Alaska Airlines said in a statement that its new policy was designed “to protect the health and safety of passengers and crew while maintaining a safe and orderly operation.”
The policy also clarifies the rules around emotional support animals, which the airline defines as animals that “assist those with a mental health-related disability and are not trained to perform a specific task or work.” Passengers can travel with only one emotional support animal each, and the only ones allowed on board are dogs and cats.