“Final Word” on Flying Service Animals

Your seat-mate on your next flight?

The US Transportation Department (DoT) has issued a “final” statement on service animals in air transportation. I’m a bit skeptical of that finality, but it’s definitely worth taking a look at what is the current last word.

When I last looked at this, airlines were issuing strict new policies, and the DoT was taking public comment on changes it was considering. They received more than 4,500 comments, and have released their final (for now) policy.

Here’s a summary:

  1. Airlines cannot categorically ban specific breeds of dogs. They also cannot categorically refuse to transport all animals that are not dogs, cats, or miniature horses. They can refuse reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders. The “emotional support peacock,” and possibly the pig, however, appear to be cleared for takeoff.
  2. Passengers may travel with a total of three service animals, including one ESA; the DoT will focus enforcement on passengers who’ve been prevented from traveling with up to 3 animals, but will not allow airlines to enforce a strict limit at all.
  3. Airlines may not categorically ban animals over a specific weight, but they are allowed, on a case-by-case basis to refuse to allow an animal in the cabin if it is too large or heavy. That could mean weight- or size-related bans on certain smaller aircraft, but not, as some airlines have tried, across-the-board weight-based bans.
  4. Airlines may ban “service” animals that are younger than 4 months, since  “those animals would not be trained to behave properly in a public setting.” But the DoT does “not anticipate exercising our enforcement resources” in this area.
  5. Airlines may not ban emotional support animals (ESAs) on flights longer than 8 hours. They can however require anyone traveling on longer flights with a service animal to provide documentation that the animal either “will not need to relieve itself on the flight or can do so in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue on the flight.” There’s no hint as to how someone might document that. They may also require 48 hours’ notice that a passenger has a service animal and they may also require early check-in, in person, in addition to the documentation.
    Note that the document uses “service animal” as a broad term that includes ADA service animals, emotional support animals (ESAs), and psychiatric service animals (PSAs). I believe that this will prove to be an enormous hassle for people traveling with, say, guide dogs or mobility service dogs, on long flights.
  6. Airlines may request documentation from a medical professional from passengers seeking to travel with an ESA or PSA and can request but cannot require that passengers use a specific, airline-created form.
    In addition, they may ask any passenger traveling with a service animal “limited questions” to determine the passenger’s need for the animal, regardless of whether the animal has a tag, vest, or other service dog paraphernalia. What these questions are is not stated.
    Note that the ADA does not apply to air travel, so airline personnel are not limited to the ADA questions (whether it is a service animal and what task it does).
  7. Airlines may not require people with disabilities using task-trained, non-ESA/PSA service animals to produce documentation in advance of travel. However, airlines may request documentation related to “vaccination, training, or behavior” if the airline reasonably believes the documentation would help assess whether the animal poses a “direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
    There is no explanation of what form this documentation might take or how it might help make such a determination, so this point could be very problematic. They do not envision taking enforcement action against airlines asking for this documentation.
  8. Airlines may require passengers traveling with ESAs or PSAs to check in, in person, in the airport lobby and present their documentation — prior to entering the “sterile” area (post-security check). They may also require these passengers to provide 48 hours’ notice that they are traveling with an ESA or PSA and require them to check in up to an hour earlier than other passengers. These requirements do not apply to non ESA/PSA service animals (which are not defined).
  9. Airlines may require that service animals of all types be “contained” (including leashed), and complaints will be evaluated case-by-case. In general, requiring some means of tethering is allowed.
    But … While airlines may make other requirements to ensure safety and to ensure that other passengers have use of their “foot space” — but they also have to  allow the animal to provide emotional support or perform tasks. Translated, that means people may be permitted to remove their ESAs from crates (and we all know that people do so even when it’s not permitted).
  10. Airlines cannot limit the total number of service animals on any flight (including ESAs and PSAs).

That’s a lot. It’s similar to the interim document that has been in force for a little over a year. But it certainly does not address the clear problems that triggered the new document, which included rampant fakes, non-domesticated animals with no training traveling in crowded planes, along with untrained, stressed, and sometimes aggressive dogs, and people with trained service dogs being hassled and worse.

Under the new policy, the documentation that airlines can require for non-ADA service animals is vaguely defined, and what they can ask of service dog users is not defined at all. Airlines still will rely on check-in personnel, who are not animal behavior experts, to evaluate whether an animal poses a risk. They’ll still face pressure to accommodate unsuitable animals. Lots of them. I’m imagining planes full of people with 3 “service” animals apiece, all outside their carriers.

Walking into the lobby of an airport is an unusual activity and would be stressful for an animal not trained for or used to public spaces. Since there are no laws that grant public access to people with ESAs, and no training is required, this describes most ESA.

But that’s just the beginning; an untrained staffer might not notice that an animal is stressed at this early stage. Airline personnel have no expertise or way of evaluating whether an animal will remain calm under stress or whether the person can safely handle the animal during travel. Many handlers wouldn’t notice or be aware of signs of stress. The animal’s stress level is likely to rise as new, weird experiences pile up: TSA check; maybe riding on a tram of some sort; sitting in a crowded gate with loud noises and anxious people; being stuffed under a tiny seat, hemmed in by strangers; more loud noises and weird smells … Under increasing stress, it’s likely that more animals will react quite naturally — and people will get hurt. And when the untrained, stressed-out dog stuffed under the middle seat bites the passenger in the window seat, that poor person is still trapped in a tiny space with no way out.

The DoT’s mission was to protect the safety of all travelers, the rights of people who are legitimate service animal users, and the safety of traveling service and support animals. The new regulations were intended to address a tsunami of fake service and emotional support animals on airplanes, traveling with people ill-prepared to handle them safely. I don’t think that this document comes close to accomplishing any of those goals. In fact, the new policies might invite even more abuse than the old rules.

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