Airlines no longer required to accommodate passengers with ‘emotional support’ animals, rules US department

It defines a service animal as a dog and permits airlines to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard an aircraft to two service animals


                            Airlines no longer required to accommodate passengers with ‘emotional support’ animals, rules US department
(Getty Images)

Airlines are not required to recognize emotional support animals as service animals and can treat them as pets, the US government has ruled. On December 2, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it is revising its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulation on the transportation of service animals by air to “ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system.” It says that carriers are permitted to limit service animals to dogs. This implies that airlines are no longer required to accommodate travelers who want to fly with animals such as pigs or rabbits they consider as their emotional support. 

Under the rule, which takes effect 30 days after it is published in the federal register, a service animal is 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. It also asks psychiatric service animals to be treated the same as other service animals. The rule allows airlines to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals. “The Department received more than 15,000 comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking. 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,” said the DOT.

For years, the department required airlines to allow animals with passengers who had a doctor’s note saying they needed the animal for emotional support while flying. That led to growth in the number and types of animals traveling in passenger cabins. While airlines believed passengers abused the rule, it also led to conflict between passengers, particularly when animals misbehaved. 

“This final rule is prompted by a number of compelling needs to revise these regulations: the increasing number of service animal complaints received from, and on
behalf of, passengers with disabilities by the Department and by airlines; the inconsistent definitions among federal agencies of what constitutes a service animal; the disruptions caused by requests to transport unusual species of animals on board aircraft, which has eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals; 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,” explains the notice.

Since airlines charge passengers for transporting pets and are prohibited from charging passengers traveling with service animals, passengers previously had an incentive to claim their pets were emotional support animals, says the department. “Airlines and other passengers have also reported increased incidence of misbehavior by emotional support animals on aircraft and in the airport. The misbehavior has included animals urinating, defecating, and in some instances, harming people and other animals at the airport or on the aircraft,” states the notification. 

Airlines and other passengers have reported increased incidence of misbehavior by emotional support animals on aircraft and in the airport (Getty Images)

The department further explains that removing the current requirement that carriers must transport emotional support animals free of charge will allow market forces to set the price for air transportation of emotional support animals as pets.

“This provision will allow carriers to charge passengers traveling with emotional support animals (dogs and other accepted species on board of an aircraft) with pet transportation fees. We note, however, that airlines may choose to continue to transport emotional support animals without charge at their discretion. Even if airlines decide after the effective date of this rule to charge pet fees for emotional support animals, this change would not impact the ability of individuals with psychiatric or mental health disabilities to continue to travel with their psychiatric service animals onboard aircraft without being charged a pet fee,” it adds. 
 
The new rules include provisions that may make some parts of the journey easier for those who travel with service animals. Passengers with a disability who are traveling with a service animal, for example, will no longer be required to physically check-in at the airport and can check-in online. 

The rule prohibits airlines from refusing to transport a service animal solely based on its breed or generalized physical type, but does give carriers the ability to refuse transportation to service animals that exhibit “aggressive behavior” and that “pose a direct threat” to the health or safety of others. 

The department also gives airlines the ability to require paperwork attesting to an animal’s health, behavior, and training. If an animal is traveling on a long flight, the person it is traveling with must verify that the service animal will either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner. While carriers are permitted to require a service animal to fit on their handler’s lap or within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft, they can require a service animal to be harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered in areas of the airport that they own, lease, or control, and on the aircraft.

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