Feathers were ruffled this week when news broke that a woman who attempted to bring her emotional support peacock onto a United flight from New Jersey’s Newark Airport was denied boarding. But according to a spokesman for the airline, the owner was asked on three separate occasions before even arriving at the airport to leave the bird at home.
“The animal did not meet United’s guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size,” United spokesman Charlie Hobart tells PEOPLE of the Jan. 27 incident, which occurred in the airport lobby. “We explained this to the customer … the peacock did not meet the guidelines for an emotional support animal.”
Each major U.S. airline has similar rules for emotional support animals, which differ from service animals in that they aren’t trained to “do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. Emotional support animals instead provide what their name implies; however, United still requires someone traveling with such an animal present recent documentation from their medical or mental health professional stating their needs.
United also asks that service and emotional support animals remain harnessed and sit in a passenger’s lap for the duration of the flight, or stay in an airline-approved carrier at the passenger’s feet. Passengers do have the option to buy a ticket for their larger animals, which the owner of the peacock in question claimed to have done.
According to Hobart, United is currently reviewing its emotional support animal policy and plans to announce changes soon (Delta made a similar move last week). “The rules are not working as they were intended to,” Hobart says. “We’ve seen a 75 percent year over year increase in customers bringing emotional support animals on board, and experienced a significant increase of onboard disturbances in those animals. We understand other carriers have seen those trends, too.”
To that end, United officials are speaking with passengers, employees and organizations that represent passengers with disabilities to “ensure that our policy continues to provide safe, reliable, accessible transport for all customers,” Hobart adds.
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United’s website currently states that service and emotional support animals can include dogs, miniature horses, monkeys, cats and birds, though rodents, reptiles, snakes and ferrets are not allowed in the cabin of the aircraft.
The peacock’s owner has not yet replied to PEOPLE’s request for comment.