US Department of Transportation Issues New Rules for Service, Emotional Support Animals

Aug 9, 2019

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On Thursday afternoon, the Department of Transportation issued a final policy statement for service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs). In this policy statement, the DOT is explicitly explaining what types of policies it will and won’t allow.

As the number of emotional support animals in aircraft seem to be an ever-growing problem, airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, Spirit, Southwest and United have tightened rules regarding ESAs. The DOT says that it’s not taking any action against airlines that have required documentation related to vaccination, training or behavior.

The DOT will continue to monitor these policies but is indicating that it won’t act “so long as it is reasonable to believe that the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”

In the final policy statement, the agency specifically addressed certain topics:

Species Limitations: The DOT will prioritize that “commonly recognized service animals” such as dogs, cats and miniature horses are accepted for transport. However, airlines could face enforcement action for “categorically” refusing to transport other species as service animals.

  • Many airlines (Alaska, American, Southwest, United) current limit emotional support animals to dogs and cats and limit service animals to dogs, cats and miniature horses. These seemingly will need to change to avoid “categorically” refusing to transport other species.

Breed/Species Restrictions: The Enforcement Office “intends to use available resources to ensure that dogs as a species are accepted for transport.” Airlines aren’t allowed to ban entire breeds — such as pit bulls — although they may refuse to carry a specific animal if it’s found to pose a threat.

Documentation Requirements: DOT will not take action against an airline if it requires passengers to provide advance documentation of a service animal’s vaccination, training or behavior. However, the department will step in if documentation is used to “unduly restrict passengers with disabilities from traveling with their service animals.”

Containment: Airlines are allowed to set their own containment rules as long as they are reasonable. The DOT points to “tethering and similar means of controlling an animal” as reasonable containment rules.

Advance Notice: Airlines are prohibited from requiring advance notice for passengers traveling with service animals as this notice “may significantly harm passengers with disabilities” as it prevents these passengers from making last-minute travel plans necessary for work or family emergencies. However, airlines are allowed to require advanced notice for emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric support animals (PSAs).

  • Many airlines (Alaska, AA, Delta, Spirit, United) require passengers traveling with ESAs or PSAs to file paperwork 48 hours or more before departure

Check-In Requirements: Airlines aren’t allowed to force passengers with service animals to check in at the counter. However, the Enforcement Office is fine with airlines requiring passengers to check-in ESAs and PSAs at the counter. The DOT notes that regulations permit airlines to require ESA and PSA users to check in one hour before the check-in time for the general public.

Proof That an Animal Is a Service Animal: Generally, airlines are allowed to “seek credible verbal assurance” that a passenger has a disability and the animal is a service animal. Further, airlines may ask the passenger questions “to determine the passenger’s need for the animal” — even if the animal has a harness, vest or tag.

Number of Service Animals Per Passenger: Recognizing that “a passenger may reasonably need more than one task-trained service animal,” the DOT isn’t setting a limit on how many service animals may travel with a passenger with a disability. Instead, the department will focus on making sure airlines allow passengers to travel with “one ESA and a total of three service animals if needed.” The policy states “generally one ESA should be sufficient for emotional support.”

  • Most airlines (Alaska, AA, Delta, Southwest) currently limit passengers to one ESA
  • Spirit limits the number of trained service animals to three per person

Number of Service Animals per Aircraft: Airlines aren’t allowed to deny transport to a service animal accompanying a passenger with a disability by limiting the total number of service animals that can be on any flight. And this includes emotional support animals.

Weight Restrictions: Airlines are allowed to deny transport to a service animal that is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin. However, airlines aren’t allowed to enforce a “categorical ban on animals over a certain weight limit, regardless of the type of aircraft for the flight.”

  • United currently bans ESAs that weight more than 65 pounds, a regulation that presumably will need to be dropped.

Age Restrictions: The Enforcement Office will generally allow airlines to “prohibit the transport of service animals younger than four months” as all service animals (including ESAs) are expected to be trained to behave in public.

  • Most airlines (AA, Delta, Spirit, United) have restrictions in place to forbid service animals under four months. No changes should be required.

Flight-Length Restrictions: For flights scheduled for eight hours or longer, airlines are able to require that passengers provide documentation “that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight or that it can do so in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue on the flight.” However, the Enforcement Office will step in if such regulations are used to effectively prohibit service animals (including ESAs) on flights lasting eight or more hours.

  • Current Delta and United policies forbids ESAs on flights over eight hours, so it’s likely that these policies will need to be changed

Mental Health Professional Form: Airlines are allowed to require passengers to provide “medical documentation of their need for the animal” for emotional support animals and psychiatric support animals. However, airlines aren’t allowed to reject a form that “meets the criteria found in the rule because of an airline’s preference that the passenger use the airline’s form.”

Featured image by mauinow1 via Getty Images

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