Yellow Labrador Retriever service dog waiting for flight at airport

DOT service animal rule lifts some proposed burdens on handlers

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US Department of Transportation officials have formally amended the Air Carrier Access Act to ensure airlines are not required to recognize emotional support animals (ESAs) as service animals, and to narrow the definition of service animals to dogs only.

The DOT’s final rule is fairly consistent with the provisions outlined in the department’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) released earlier this year. It addresses concerns over the types of animals being brought into the cabin – in the past, passengers carried everything from peacocks to pigs on board as emotional support animals – and effectively closes a loophole which saw some passengers falsely claim pets as service animals.

But there are some notable changes in the final rule which, on the whole, should lessen some of the burdens placed on service animal handlers that were originally envisaged in the NPRM, and help the process run more smoothly.

How a service animal is defined

A service animal is now defined 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. This is similar to the definition of a service animal in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Although airlines may choose to transport other species of animals, such as cats, miniature horses, and capuchin monkeys, that assist individuals with disabilities in the cabin for free pursuant to an established airline policy, they would only be required under Federal law to recognize trained dogs as service animals,” states the law, which goes into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

The exclusion of miniature horses received pushback in the NRPM process, but the DOT ultimately sided with industry on the issue, noting that the number of individuals who use trained miniature horses as service animals is quite small compared to that of service animal dog users.

Crucially, airlines are now permitted to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals, and can limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring on board an aircraft to two service animals.

The end result is that passengers flying with emotional support animals will likely have to pay a fee to bring their reclassified pet on board aircraft.

Paperwork requirements for service animal handlers

Under the new rule, airlines may require service animal handlers to complete and submit up to two forms, a reduction from the three forms proposed in the NPRM.

The first of these documents, a service animal air transportation form, is a one-page form combining elements from the behavior attestation form and health form outlined in the NPRM.

The combined form, to be completed by the handler, requests particulars including the names of the dog and handler; contact information for the handler; a description of the dog, including weight; the date of the dog’s last rabies vaccination and when that vaccine expires; an attestation that the dog is free of fleas, ticks, or diseases that could harm humans or other animals; the name and contact information of the dog’s veterinarian; and the name of the person who trained the animal and their contact information.

The handler must also acknowledge that:

  • They understand the expectations for the dog’s behavior,
  • Their dogs must always be leashed or otherwise tethered,
  • They may be held financially responsible for any damage caused by their animals if the airline would also hold other passengers responsible for similar damage; and,
  • The information provided is true to the best of their knowledge and they are subject to fines or other penalties for knowingly providing false information.

Airlines may also require the completion of a service animal relief attestation form if the trip includes a segment longer than eight hours. Airlines are already allowed to request this information; the new rule simply standardizes the form. It asks if the dog will either not need to relieve itself or can do so in a sanitary manner; and how the dog will relieve itself in a sanitary manner if that option is selected.

Airlines may also now require new paperwork for each trip taken by a passenger with a service animal, while clarifying that a round-trip reservation is considered a single trip.

They are required to make the forms available online in an accessible format, as well as available at each airport and by mail if requested, and must allow the paperwork to be submitted electronically. Carriers can require that paperwork be received 48 hours prior to the start of a trip but must also allow for the processing of paperwork at the gate for trips booked within 48 hours of departure.

Additionally, the requirements contain a grace provision requiring airlines to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate a passenger with a service animal if they missed the 48-hour deadline.

Check-in process for handlers and their service animals

Passengers traveling with service animals will be allowed to check in using any manner that is made available to other passengers.

While this provision may not seem notable, the NPRM had proposed that service animal handlers instead be required to check in at the airport an hour before the general public to ensure paperwork is processed and observe the dog’s behavior. After reviewing feedback, the DOT determined that this requirement was overly burdensome on service animal handlers.

“It is the department’s view that a one-hour advance check-in requirement would impose significant inconvenience on passengers with disabilities while not providing airlines with an efficient or effective method for reviewing the documentation,” explains the DOT.

“Accordingly, the department has revised the final rule to prohibit airlines from requiring that passengers traveling with service animals physically check in at the airport lobby solely on the basis that the passenger is traveling with a service animal. This change will ensure that service animal users are not prevented from enjoying the same convenience-related benefits provided to other passengers, such as online and curbside check-in.”

Responses to the final rule

The DOT’s final rule for traveling with service animals addresses many of the concerns that your author – a guide dog handler – had about the NPRM, as it lifts the more burdensome requirements from the proposal.

Flight attendants are also applauding the move. “Animals that have not been socialized to the stresses of air travel have been far more likely to cause inflight incidents, resulting in passengers and crewmembers being put at risk. Far too often, flight attendants have been intimidated, bitten, and required medical attention. We are frequently left to deal with behavioral issues, including urination, defecation, barking, and animals becoming loose in the cabin,” says the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, representing cabin crew at American Airlines.

“Furthermore, the new regulation closes a loophole that has long been exploited to the detriment of crewmembers and other travelers. The rule change will halt the rampant abuse of emotional support animal certification but ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities can travel with their legitimate service animals.”

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The final rule also benefits allergic travelers, who are likely to see fewer uncrated animals on planes and therefore experience fewer allergic reactions. Traveling in a confined space with animals can trigger a life-threatening attack for allergic passengers.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) generally supports the new rule, with one recognized drawback. “We’re glad to see our community heard when it comes to experiences while traveling with asthma and allergies,” says Kenneth Mendez, CEO and president of AAFA.

“While AAFA expressed support for key components of this proposal, we would still like to see a rule change to accommodate passengers with allergies or asthma who need distance from animals. This is a change AAFA recommended but was not included in this final ruling.”

The requirements of the DOT’s final rule should be easy to meet and allow service animal handlers to return to the skies with confidence when the pandemic subsides and they feel safe traveling.

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