The US government announced this week an overhaul on its rules for traveling by air with service animals. Among these changes include the rule that emotional support animals will no longer be considered service animals on flights. Furthermore, only dogs can be considered as a service animal.
This final rule defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
The rule also allows airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals, and permits airlines to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard an aircraft to two service animals.
This means airlines can prohibit emotional support dogs from boarding an airplane.
Previously, airlines were required to allow emotional support animals on board.
However, over the years this led to incidents including animals misbehaving on the plane and tragic incidents such as an emotional support hamster being flushed down the toilet of an airport after the owner was denied boarding.
While many studies have shown that emotional support animals have many benefits including companionship and support for those with mental conditions, the new rule now leaves it up to airlines whether they will permit an emotional support animal on their plane.
According to the Department of Transportation, the rules were changed due to a ‘number of compelling needs to revise these regulations’. This included the increasing number of service animal complaints received from, and on behalf of, passengers with disabilities by the Department and by airlines.
Furthermore, the rule change was prompted by the inconsistent definitions among federal agencies of what constitutes a “service animal.
It was also prompted by disruptions caused by requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft, which the Department said has eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.
The Department also cited the increasing frequency of incidents of travelers fraudulently representing their pets as service animals; and the reported increase in the incidents of misbehavior by emotional support animals.
When it was proposing the rule changes, the Department received more than 15,000 comments.
The new rule take effect from 2021 (30 days after the publication of the rules on 2 December 2020).
The final rule addresses concerns raised by individuals with disabilities, airlines, flight attendants, airports, other aviation transportation stakeholders, and other members of the public, regarding service animals on aircraft.
The final rule:
- Defines a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability;
- No longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal;
- Requires airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals;
- Allows airlines to require forms developed by Department of Transportation attesting to a service animal’s health, behavior and training, and if taking a long flight attesting that the service animal can either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner;
- Allows airlines to require individuals traveling with a service animal to provide the DOT service animal form(s) up to 48 hours in advance of the date of travel if the passenger’s reservation was made prior to that time;
- Prohibits airlines from requiring passengers with a disability who are traveling with a service animal to physically check-in at the airport instead of using the online check-in process;
Furthermore the rule:
- Allows airlines to require a person with a disability seeking to travel with a service animal to provide the Department of Transportation service animal form(s) at the passenger’s departure gate on the date of travel;
- Allows airlines to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals;
- Allows airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft;
- Allows airlines to require that service animals be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times in the airport and on the aircraft;
- Continues to allow airlines to refuse transportation to service animals that exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others; and
- Continues to prohibit airlines from refusing to transport a service animal solely based on breed.