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The United States Department of Transportation issued updated guidance regarding the use of service animals on airplanes. This guidance, known as the Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals, clarifies the U.S. DOT’s position on the use of service animals for airlines and travelers.
The title of this article is a little click baity – but bear with me because it’s not inaccurate (although it is improbable) and it’s related to semi-current events. Last year, Delta Airlines banned Pit Bulls on their airplanes including those identified as service animals. The revised DOT guidance appears to be a direct response to their policy. Dog owners were up in arms over this policy. In even more recent news, an American Airlines flight attendant was bitten to the point of requiring stitches from the emotional support animal (a dog).
Airlines have long been concerned about fraudulent use of the emotional service animal label (“do you really need the dog”) and of course the safety of their passengers and employees. Additionally, the widening of the types of animals considered “emotional support animals” caused great consternation. The The DOT appears to be attempting to address policies and requirements around emotional service animals with this guidance. It’s worth noting that this policy reiterates a previous position:
“In accordance with section 382.117(f), airlines will not be subject to enforcement action if they continue to deny transport to snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders”
So…no real life Snakes on a Plane…dangit.
The new guidance also highlights a few interesting points worth noting:
- No Restrictions on Breed / Species: In a lengthy and unnecessarily complicated sentence the DOT essentially states that all types and breeds (implication: pit bulls) of dogs are allowed as service animals. The policy further notes (and this was the case already) that airlines are still permitted to determine that any specific animal – regardless of breed – poses a threat (and thus not be permitted to board the plane).
Here’s the full guidance:
The Department’s Enforcement Office views a limitation based exclusively on breed of the service animal to not be allowed under its service animal regulation. The Enforcement Office intends to use available resources to ensure that dogs as a species are accepted for transport. Airlines are permitted to find that any specific animal, regardless of breed, poses a direct threat.
Another important aspect the revised guidance notes is related to the number of service animals allowed on a plane:
- Unlimited Animals Allowed. The policy, below, essentially states that airlines cannot deny other passengers with service animals boarding simply because there are “too many” other service animals on the plane. In other words, there’s no limit on how many service animals can board a plane.
The Department’s disability regulation does not allow airlines to deny transport to a service animal accompanying a passenger with a disability because of a limit on the total number of service animals that can be on any flight. The Department’s Enforcement Office would thus view denial of transport to an ESA because of other ESAs in the cabin of aircraft to violate its regulation as ESAs are considered service animals under the existing rule.
So, now you understand where we came up with our click baity title. Hardey har har.
In all seriousness, this policy is tricky for the airlines. Passenger and employee safety is of the utmost importance. However, passengers who have the legal right (and need) for service animals must (and should) be accommodated. In many cases this really isn’t an issue, but for those situations where someone is abusing a policy the airline can find itself in a difficult situation.
Fortunately the DOT has provided some latitude for airlines here as is further noted in their revised guidance. Airlines reps can ask for proof the animal is in fact a service animal:
The Department’s Enforcement Office has long interpreted existing law as permitting airlines to seek credible verbal assurance that a passenger is an individual with a disability and the animal is a service animal. If a passenger’s disability is not clear, airlines may ask questions to determine the passenger’s need for the animal even if the animal has other indicia of a service animal such as a harness, vest or tag.
Moreover, airlines can exercise some judgement with regard to the weight/size and age of the animal:
Under the Department’s disability regulation, airlines may deny transport to a service animal that is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin. The Department’s Enforcement Office views a categorical ban on animals over a certain weight limit, regardless of the type of aircraft for the flight, to be inconsistent with the regulation.
The DOT also notes that service animals are expected to behave in public and it’s NOT a violation of DOT policy to disallow a puppy posing as a service dog from traveling. The age cutoff is specifically four months or younger:
The Department’s disability regulation does not address the minimum age of a service animal. However, all service animals (including ESAs) are expected to be trained to behave in public. As a general matter, the Department’s Enforcement Office would not view it to be a violation for an airline to prohibit the transport of service animals younger than four months as some airlines have done.
Long flights are an issue as well (for humans too…) because, after all, where’s the animal going to go? And thus, airlines retain some latitude (although this will be difficult to enforce) regarding longer flights and untrained dogs. This is an existing policy.
The Department’s disability regulation provides that airlines may require passengers using a service animal on flights scheduled to take eight hours or more to 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. The Department’s Enforcement Office intends to use its available resources to ensure that airlines comply with the existing regulations with respect to this issue and do not automatically prohibit service animals (including ESAs) on flights lasting eight or more hours.
Lastly, airlines can ask for medical documentation of their need for a service animal and by the way, it doesn’t have to be the airline’s special form:
Under the Department’s disability regulation, airlines are not required to transport ESAs or PSAs unless the passenger provides medical documentation of their need for the animal as specified in the rule. The Department’s Enforcement Office would view it to be a violation for an airline to reject a medical form or letter that meets the criteria found in the rule because of an airline’s preference that the passenger use the airline’s form.
All of this is to say that the DOT is trying to walk a fine line here in supporting the needs of passenger’s rights for service animals while keeping airline safety and concerns in mind. It’s a tough line to walk and it’d be a lot easier if a few bad apples didn’t make it tougher.
- Passenger with legitimate service animal needs has a legitimate service animal (let’s say a pit bull)
- Passenger provides appropriate medical paperwork
- Dog is an appropriately trained service animal and it’s not an especially long flight
- But…it’s a pit bull. And it’s bigger than other dogs.
- The airline could decide to hide behind (both legitimately and illegitimately) the weight restriction stipulation. That’s a gut call a gate agent might make that ends up on social media.
So, while the revised guidance is good (and seems fair) I do think it will be hard to enforce in a few cases. Stay tuned.
Note: I am not picking on Pit Bulls. They are fine animals, but they do make good examples for this article.
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