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New Rules for Service Animals on Planes Are (Finally) Taking Shape

The Department of Transportation announced this summer that it will issue new guidelines governing service animals on planes. The agency published a list of enforcement priorities, which offer insight into how it will structure rules around this growing issue.

And a growing issue, it is. Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group representing most of the country’s largest airlines and a major proponent of developing new guidelines, recently noted that the growth in onboard service animals on planes far outpaced the growth in passengers over the past several years.

“In 2017, U.S. airlines saw a nearly 60 percent growth in the number of emotional support animals (ESAs) on flights, which stood in stark contrast to the 3.1 percent growth in the number of passengers,” A4A said in a statement. “In 2018, while that growth ‘slowed’ to 14 percent, it still was significantly higher than the 4.7 percent growth in the number of passengers.”

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According to A4A, “the increase in travelers flying with untrained ESAs also has led to a sharp increase in animal incidents on flights, [including] urination, biting and other injuries by animals that are not qualified as service animals.”

Upcoming Rules for Service Animals on Planes

As “enforcement priorities,” the most recent action from the DOT serves mainly to set the stage for the rule-making process to come. The DOT’s approach is to give airlines discretion to deny service animals based on a series of broad criteria, and to not “take action against an airline for asking users … to provide documentation related to vaccination, training, or behavior so long as … 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.”

Some examples of these enforcement priorities:

  • Type of animal: “Priority will be placed on ensuring that the most commonly recognized service animals (dogs, cats and miniature horses) are accepted for transport.  Nevertheless, airlines are still subject to enforcement action if they categorically refuse to transport other species that they are required to transport under the current rule.”
  • In-flight containment: “The Department’s Enforcement Office will consider containment issues for all service animals on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on reasonableness.  In general, tethering and similar means of controlling an animal that are permitted in the Americans with Disabilities Act context would be reasonable in the context of controlling service animals in the aircraft cabin.”
  • Weight: “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.”
  • Age: 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.

For its part, A4A released a letter in support of the priorities, saying the DOT’s position is a “good step towards addressing the harm caused by the unconstrained growth of untrained emotional support animals (ESAs) on airplanes,” and calling on the DOT to “protect the legitimate right of passengers with a disability to travel with a service animal and adopt the definition of service animal from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” Stay tuned for further updates on this later on in the year.

Readers: Have you flown with an emotional support animal? Have you shared a row with service animals on planes? Comment below.

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By Carl Unger

Contributing Editor Carl Unger believes that every trip is worth taking. He loves an extended trip to Europe as much as he enjoys exploring the towns and landscape near home. Basically, you'll find him wherever there is good food, fresh air, and plenty of stories to bring home.

Carl has been writing for SmarterTravel since 2005. His travel writing has also appeared on USA Today and the Boston travel guide.

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