This is an Op-Ed contribution from Justin Yarbrough, a guide dog handler who works as an accessibility specialist, and writes about assistive technology. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
Last month, the US Department of Transportation released a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) regarding flying with service animals. Among other things, the NPRM aligns the definition of service animal with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), adds new documentation requirements, and eliminates emotional support animals as a protected category.
As a guide dog handler, I have serious concerns about some of the proposals and fear they will discourage service animal owners from traveling with the animals that give them more independence, while doing little to discourage fakers.
Comparing Current and Proposed Procedures
Currently, passengers who self-identify that they’re flying with a service dog ahead of their flight can arrive at the airport at the same time as other passengers and skip the check-in counter entirely if they’d like. Under the DOT’s proposal, passengers with service dogs would be required to arrive at the airport an hour earlier than normal to process paperwork and ensure the airline can assess the dog’s behavior. Depending on the length of the flight, the DOT would require either two or three forms as follows:
- A behavior attestation form, to be filled out by the animal’s handler,
- A service animal health form, completed by the animal’s veterinarian and valid for one year, and
- A service animal relief attestation form, to be completed by the animal’s handler for any segments longer than eight hours. Airlines are already allowed to request this attestation; the NPRM would just standardize the form.
A more in-depth breakdown of the proposals can be read in Runway Girl Network’s coverage of the NPRM announcement.
Problems with the DOT NPRM
Not curbing fakers
The DOT believes the shift to standardized forms will discourage flyers from misrepresenting their pets because the proposed forms state that any misrepresentations are a federal crime. Considering that the DOT has been criticized by flyers’ rights groups for lax enforcement of consumer protection rules under both the Obama and Trump administrations, I have my doubts that criminal penalties for misrepresentation will be enforced.
But how do you curb fakers? As I noted in my piece for RGN on the DOT’s enforcement priorities last August, I was given an ID card by The Seeing Eye upon graduation with my guide dog PJ. While the US doesn’t allow public accommodations to ask for proof that an animal is a service animal under the ADA, similar laws in other countries, such as Canada and the UK, do allow this.
I would suggest that service animal schools, after a vetting process, be allowed to issue DOT-approved ID cards to service dogs they’ve trained attesting to the animal’s specialized training and temperament. These identification cards could be checked by gate agents before or during the boarding process like passport checks for passengers traveling on international flights.
Health forms are unnecessary
While I understand the desire to ensure service dogs are healthy and immunized, I really don’t think paperwork like this is necessary. According to the NPRM, disability advocates felt that requiring health forms completed by a third party created a burden and extra cost for service animal handlers with no real benefit. I agree with these advocates, who point out that no airline has provided evidence of disease transmission or instances where a handler has refused to provide health information after a bite or other injury.
The NPRM also points out that rabies immunizations are required by most, if not all, jurisdictions within the United States and the Centers for Disease Control website recommends any domestic animal that bites someone be observed for ten days regardless of immunization status, a requirement after an animal bite in some jurisdictions. The CDC says treatment for rabies should only be considered when the animal is showing symptoms when the bite occurs or develops them during the quarantine period. Considering this, I believe the claims that airlines should have shot records so anybody bitten can avoid a potentially painful rabies treatment are baseless.
Discouraging legitimate service animals?
In my piece discussing the DOT’s enforcement priorities, I mentioned a friend who opts to pay pet fees to travel with her emotional support chihuahua mix Kuchulu instead of dealing with all the paperwork to classify her as an emotional support animal. I fear that adding paperwork requirements will discourage service animal handlers from traveling with their animals based solely on a desire to not want to deal with the paperwork and extra scrutiny the NPRM would create. Some may choose to take trips without their animals, while others may opt to not fly altogether
Last year, I traveled to the American Foundation for the Blind‘s Leadership Conference, a two-day conference covering blindness-related topics ranging from education to technology. If I had not had PJ, my guide dog pictured above, I would not have had the confidence to make the trip to an unfamiliar environment like that by myself.
Emotional Support Animals
Under previous DOT service animal definitions, animals with specific training to mitigate a psychiatric condition were classified as emotional support animals. Under the NPRM, these animals would be classified as service animals just like they are under the ADA, and would need to adhere to the same proposed rules.
However, all other emotional support animals under the current regulations would be treated as pets. While I feel terrible for those individuals who legitimately need emotional support animals to travel, I’m afraid this proposed rule was unavoidable considering how rampant abuse of the category has become.
Reexamining how pets are flown?
When researching this topic, I was struck by a point Ben Schlappig made in his piece about the proposed rules. Like Schlappig, I couldn’t see myself checking a dog to travel in the cargo hold. In addition to PJ, my wife and I have two other dogs, Quinn and Joyce. We don’t have children of our own and often refer to our dogs as our kids.
Maybe the better solution to the fake service and emotional support animal problem is for airlines to provide a safe, comfortable, and affordable way to transport pets.
Delta’s recently-announced CarePod has the potential to be a game-changer in the pet transport arena, offering a non-spill water supply, insulation from outside elements, and specially designed doors and windows that limit visibility to unfamiliar outside environments.
“As the only airline to offer this premium pet travel solution, it represents a significant improvement for the millions of people who want to travel with their four-legged family members,” says Delta Cargo vice president Shawn Cole in a statement.
While it’s my understanding that these carriers would be too small for our dogs, they’re certainly a promising first step to providing a much-improved passenger experience (#PaxEx) for our four-legged family members.
I believe some of the proposals put forth in the DOT’s NPRM will make it harder for service animal handlers to fly with the very animals that mitigate their disabilities and allow them to live fuller, more complete lives while doing little to discourage people misrepresenting their pets as service or emotional support animals.
I call for all service animal handlers and their allies to submit comments to the DOT while the comment period is open in the hopes that the department finds a workable solution for all stakeholders.
Additionally, I call for the airline industry to find ways of transporting pets that take the animal’s health and safety into greater consideration, which I believe should also help curb the problem of fake service and emotional support animals.
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