What the Recently Announced Service Animal Air Travel Rules Mean for Travelers

2020-12-16 | AKC Government Relations Department

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced new rules for the use of service animals in air travel.  Here is a summary of the changes and what led to them. 

A federal law known as the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is responsible for carrying out the ACAA, and creates and enforces rules that define the rights of passengers and the obligations of airlines under that law. One of the most notable differences in the definitions was that the ACAA rules recognized emotional support animals, for which specific training is not required, as a kind of service animal; and airlines were required to allow them to travel with their owners in the aircraft cabin without charging them additional fees to do so. 

Unfortunately, several major problems developed under the old rules.  First, the definition of “service animal” under the ACAA differed from the definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities more generally). Because one set of rules applied to service animal users in airports and a different set of rules applied to them while onboard airplanes, a lot of confusion resulted among the public, airport managers, airlines, service animal users, and the general public. Second, many widely-reported disruptions were caused by requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft as service animals, which resulted in the loss of public trust in the legitimate use of service animals. Third, airlines experienced a large increase in the frequency of travelers who fraudulently represented their untrained pets as service animals, specifically as emotional support animals; and as a result, airlines and DOT began receiving a large number of reports of emotional support animals misbehaving on aircraft

DOT adopted its new service animal rules to help address these problems.  

The most significant change in the rules is how service animals will be defined: 

A dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform physical tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychological, intellectual, or other mental disability. 

This new definition is more closely aligned with how service animals are defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will help prevent conflicts between the ACAA and the ADA and the rules of each law, and reduce confusion among the public. 

The new definition requires airlines to recognize dogs as service animals.  No other species are required to be recognized.  (Airlines can choose to accommodate other species as service animals if their policies allow them to.)

This definition includes animals that help individuals with either physical or psychiatric disabilities.  The definition also clearly states that service dogs must be task trained, as they are also generally provided enhanced training in how to behave in public, including on the unique environments of airplanes.  Emotional support animals are not specifically task trained, and therefore airlines are not required to consider them as service animals.  Airlines can continue to accommodate them as they do other pets, which usually includes requiring the traveler to pay a fee for the animal’s accommodation on a flight.

The definition continues to prohibit airlines from refusing to accommodate a service dog based only on their breed or type.  Airlines can continue to assess each service dog individually to determine whether it poses a threat to the health or safety of others. 

Because passengers are not entitled to more space than they purchased, airlines are allowed to require that service dogs fit within the passenger’s foot space on the aircraft or placed on the passenger’s lap.  If they cannot fit, airlines must move the service animal user and the dog to another seat within the same class of service where the service animal can be accommodated (if available), by offering the passenger the opportunity to transport the service animal in cargo free of charge, or by offering travel on a later flight if space is available.  Passengers with large service animals continue to have the option to purchase an additional seat in advance to ensure that they will be accommodated on a specific flight. 

Individuals traveling with service animals are required to complete forms that (1) attest to the dog’s behavior/training and health; and (2) attest to the dog not needing to relieve itself, or that it can relieve itself in a way that does not create a health or sanitation risk, on flights of 8+ hours.  The forms will clearly state the penalties for falsifying information.  Service animal users will be required to complete the required forms for each trip a service animal user travels.  (Service animal users cannot be required to complete the form more than once if they purchased a round-trip ticket.)  Airlines are also required to accept the forms electronically or by hardcopy. 

Service animals are required to be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times.  Because verbal means of control more easily can create safety issues on aircraft, restraining devices are required even though they may interfere with the service animal’s work while on the aircraft. 

The biggest impact this rule change will have is on those individuals whose emotional support animals were previously considered service animals and allowed to travel in cabin without charge.  Unless they are otherwise considered a service animal (i.e., they are specifically task trained, etc.), passengers will be required to comply with the airline’s rules and requirements for pets traveling in cabin or as cargo. 

The American Kennel Club (AKC) has long been troubled with people purposefully mischaracterizing their dogs as service animals, specifically emotional support animals, to get special treatment.  This practice was the motivation for AKC’s Board of Directors to adopt a new organizational position in March 2014 about the Misuse of Service Dogs, which provides:   

Service dogs are defined as those that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. The AKC® strongly supports public accommodations that allow individuals with disabilities to use service dogs.

The AKC strongly condemns characterizing dogs as service animals when they are not, or attempting to benefit from a dog’s service dog status when the individual using the dog is not a person with a disability.

The new ACAA service animal rules appropriately address what had become a big problem for many qualified service animal users, the airlines, and many concerned members of the public: the fraudulent misrepresentation of pets as service animals.  AKC expressed support for the new definition of service animal that DOT proposed.  We appreciate that the Department of Transportation considered input from stakeholders, including disability advocacy organization, individuals who use service animals, and airlines.  We believe the process resulted in appropriate new rules that will better protect qualified service animal users, not discriminate against certain breeds being used as service dogs, and help prevent fraud. 

To learn more about this issue and AKC leadership in this area, visit the Service Dog Key Issue page at AKC’s Legislative Action Center

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