On Wednesday morning, pups Zoe, Shamus and Pal were hard at work offering harried travelers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport some soft ears to scratch, bellies to rub, and even a few doggy kisses, if needed.
Whether it’s these highly trained therapy dogs, service animals, bomb-sniffing canines or emotional support pets, more and more furry creatures are turning up at the nation’s airports, including MSP.
So it makes sense that they would need a private and clean place to relieve themselves.
While MSP already has three pet-relief areas in (or just outside) both terminals, an ongoing $1.6 billion upgrade at the airport includes adding more in the next year or so.
As Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, notes, “The primary driver [for more pet-relief areas] isn’t really the increase in dogs. Rather, it’s a customer convenience for those traveling with service animals and pets, given the size of Terminal 1.”
The indoor pet-relief area in Terminal 1 is located just off Concourse E, near the northern stretch of the main mall. It features faux grass, a fire hydrant, and a sink. Later this year, construction will begin on another such area on Concourse F, but the project won’t be completed until later this year or early next.
Airports are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to provide pet-relief areas — and those flying more than 10,000 passengers must have at least one area inside each terminal. The quality of these pet restrooms nationwide varies widely, according to the website petfriendlytravel.com, ranging from “small, utilitarian spaces in obscure areas to entire rooms with finish materials that match nearby human restrooms.”
Eventually, Hogan says, MSP hopes to have pet facilities on all seven concourses in Terminal 1, the airport’s busiest.
This comes at time when some airlines are tightening regulations on commercial flights regarding passengers traveling with emotional support pets, some of which are fraudulently “certified.”
New rules went into effect March 1 for travelers flying Delta Air Lines; the dominant carrier at MSP has seen an 84 percent increase since 2016 in reported incidents involving animals.
Delta says these incidents involve urination/defecation, biting and a widely reported attack last summer of a man who was reportedly pinned in his window seat by a 50-pound emotional support dog, resulting in more than two dozen stitches on the man’s face.
All told, Delta says it carries about 700 service or support animals daily throughout its system, nearly 250,000 a year. “Customers have attempted to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, spiders and more,” the Atlanta-based airline said. “Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs.”
A recent turning point, widely disseminated on social media, involved a woman who attempted to board a United Airlines flight at Newark Airport with an emotional support peacock. The blue-breasted bird — named Dexter — was turned away.
United quickly “expanded” its policy for emotional support animals, saying it wanted to balance protecting its employees and customers, while accommodating passengers with disabilities. “The Department of Transportation’s rules regarding emotional support animals are not working,” the airline said, noting a 75 percent year-over-year increase in the practice. (Emotional support animals are permitted on commercial flights free of charge under the federal Air Carrier Access Act.)
Generally, the enhanced regulations by the airlines involve confirmation that the animal is trained to behave in a public setting, as well as documentation from a veterinarian that it is healthy and properly vaccinated.
For those travelers with pets who follow the rules, the hoopla is a little disconcerting.
Keith Edwards, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was traveling to a dog show in Kansas City with his champion toy fox terrier Suzie on Wednesday. As he waited at MSP for his connecting flight, Edwards said he paid $125 each way to tuck Suzie under his seat in the airplane. “I put her in the carrier and she’s fine, she likes it,” he said, adding, “Did you hear about that peacock?”
And for those pet handlers who volunteer their dogs with MSP’s Animal Ambassadors program, the taint of a few ill-behaved emotional support animals is dispiriting.
Mary Ann Gallagher, a retired flight attendant who brings her British Labrador retriever Shamus to the airport several times a month, says the two went through 25 weeks of intense training. It shows: Over a two-hour shift, more than 200 people approached Shamus, seemingly from all angles, in the busy airport mall.
The midnight-colored pup reveled in the attention. He rolled over, punched his paws to the sky, inviting someone to set aside their luggage for a moment and give his belly a scratch.