On Wednesday, January 22, 2020, the United States Department of Transportation proposed new rules regarding service animals and emotional support animals on planes. Among these changes are that the Department of Transportation would no longer require airlines to accommodate air travelers with emotional support animals.
Moreover, airlines do not even need to accommodate passengers with service animals or psychiatric service animals other than dogs. Instead, under the new rules, only service dogs would be allowed to fly for free in cabin on airplanes. This includes psychiatric service dogs, which the Department of Transportation previously did not classify as service animals.
A service dog is defined as a canine trained to perform specific tasks for an individual with a disability. By contrast, an emotional support animal, dog or otherwise, is not required to have any training whatsoever or, even, to perform specific tasks the individual is otherwise unable to perform. Rather, an emotional support dog assists a person with a diagnosed mental or emotional disorder or disability by providing general companionship, affection and comfort. For many people, flying in an airplane simply is not possible without the support of their emotional support animal.
No longer will other service animals besides dogs be allowed to fly on planes in the U.S., such as miniature horses, which previously have been approved for air travel as service animals, or service cats, nor will any type of emotional support animal, including dogs that are not also certified as service animals.
The Department of Transportation says these proposed changes are in an effort to make air travel as safe and accessible for all patients as possible. Under previous rules, which required airlines accommodate emotional support animals of all sorts in nearly the same manner that they accommodate service animals, airlines experienced a sharp spike in the number of animals they needed to accommodate on board their flights.
Specifically, as Airlines for America (A4A,) an industry trade organization, reported, the number of ESA traveling in cabin on commercial flights in the US rose to 751,000 in 2017 from only 481,000 in 2016. The Associated Press reported that, in 2017, Southwest Airlines carried over 190,000 emotional support animals, United Airlines handled 76,000 and American Airlines carried 155,790. Delta Airlines, meanwhile, reported that it flew 250,000 ESAs that same year.
This, airlines claim, posed an unreasonable and undue burden on them and the other passengers, including causing conflict and injury, leading the Department of Transportation to come up with these changes. In fact, the changes were, at least in part, prompted by the complaints of passengers and flight attendants about the unbearable proliferation of animals on board flights, especially untrained and aggressive ones.
Additionally, airlines have begun to question whether passengers have been attempting to pass off pets—including rabbits, cats, birds, pigs, possums, snakes, squirrels and even, in at lest one incident, a peacock—as emotional support animals so as to avoid paying pet travel fees and/or being forced to have their animal travel in the cargo hold of the plane instead of in cabin with them. Under the new rules, anyone attempting to pass off a pet as a service animal in order to avoid rules and restrictions regarding traveling with pets on planes would be committing a federal crime punishable by prison time, a fine or both. Airline officials predictably cheered the announcement of the proposed changes to the rules, as did officials of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing 50,000 flight attendants employed at 20 airlines.
Prior to this proposed change, the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation, created in 2016, attempted to resolve this issue, but couldn’t decide on which animals to allow and which to prohibit.
Two different laws oversee the question of service dogs and emotional support dogs on planes. The provisions for allowing service dogs on planes are dictated by the Americans With Disabilities Act, while those formerly allowing emotional support animals aboard airplanes are part of the Air Carrier Access Act.
The proposed changes to the law do not prohibit emotional support dogs from flying on planes; they merely relieve airlines of the requirement to accommodate them. Airlines may still elect to permit emotional support animals on board and may even continue to allow them to fly for free at their own discretion.
The new rules would restrict how many service animals an individual could bring onto a single flight to two. It would also permit airlines to make anyone traveling with a service animal check in at least one hour prior to the start of check-in for passengers in general. Airlines would no longer be permitted, however, to require passengers traveling with a service animal to provide necessary paperwork at least 48 hours prior to scheduled takeoff.
The new rules would provide for a standardized form all airlines would have to use to require passengers to attest in writing to the good behavior and good health of the service animal and, if the flight is longer than a certain duration, that the animal is able to avoid relieving itself while on board or can do so in a sanitary manner. This document will also require the passenger to attest that the service dog has proper training to perform the tasks for which it is certified. The owner can train the dog him or herself or have a third party organization train the dog. Beyond signing this statement, however, passengers will no longer be required to provide any additional documentation proving the assertions made in the statement.
The new rules would permit airlines to require passengers traveling with service animals to fit them within the handler’s foot area on the plane and, when not contained in a pet carrier, either tethered, leashed, harnessed or otherwise under the owner or handler’s control.
Airlines would be prohibited from refusing to let a service animal fly on board due to its breed, but they are now permitted to refuse an animal transport that behaves aggressively to people or other animals.
These proposed rules would depart significantly from the guidance the Department of Transportation previously gave in August of 2019 prohibiting airlines from restricting passengers from traveling on board their domestic flights with emotional support animals.
The National Disability Rights Action Network, meanwhile, has panned the proposed changes, decrying that it would make travel more difficult for people with disabilities.
Once the Department of Transportation announced the proposed changes, the public had 60 days to offer comments on the rule before it would be voted on and, if passed, put into effect. The last time such a comment period was opened regarding regulations for the handling of support and service animals on planes, in 2018, the Department of Transportation received almost 4,500 comments. The Department of Transportation has not yet set an official timeline for making a determination on the final rule.
You can read the proposed new rules for Traveling by Air With Service Animals here in their entirety.
Turn Your Emotional Support Dog into a Service Dog to Fly with Your Dog In-Cabin
In certain cases, you can register your emotional support dog as a service dog or psychiatric service dog. This would allow you to continue flying with your dog accompanying you in cabin on an airplane at no extra charge. To learn more about how to turn your emotional support dog into a service dog read our article on how an ES dog can become a service dog here.