Photo by Javier Brosch/Shutterstock
If you’re flying with an emotional support animal, make sure you have a doctor’s note.
Airlines can now ask for medical documentation proving the passenger’s need for the animal and can deny access to animals deemed a threat. They cannot, however, ban specific breeds such as pit bulls.
New guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on Thursday made some very clear distinctions between what is allowable for passengers traveling with trained service animals, versus for those traveling with emotional support animals.
If a passenger’s disability is unclear, for instance, airlines are allowed to ask questions to determine the passenger’s need for the animal. And airlines are not required to transport emotional or psychiatric support animals unless the passenger provides medical documentation of the need for the animal.
Additionally, while airlines can’t require that passengers traveling with service animals inform them in advance that they will have a service animal with them, those traveling with emotional and psychiatric support animals do need to let the airline know ahead of time.
Airlines are also allowed to require emotional and psychiatric support animal users to check in one hour before the general public check-in time. The rules are effective immediately.
The updated guidelines have been released in the wake of mounting coverage of people traveling with emotional support animals, which are not considered to be service animals by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A service animal is defined as an animal that has been trained to perform specific tasks for an individual with a disability. An emotional support animal is intended to provide comfort and support to someone with an emotional or psychological disability.
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Traditionally, the DOT has allowed emotional support animals to travel on planes. But recently, there have been reports of passengers attempting to bring all manner of emotional support animals onto their flights, including animals such as a squirrel, pig, peacock, fish, and hamster. Last month, an emotional support dog reportedly bit an American Airlines flight attendant, an injury that resulted in stitches.
Despite growing concerns about the number and kinds of animals being allowed to fly with passengers, the DOT noted that it plans to keep several protections in place for people traveling with service as well as emotional support animals.
With regards to service animals, the federal agency stated that while it will permit airlines to require owners to show proof of vaccinations, training, and behavior to determine whether the animal poses a threat to other passengers, it also plans to monitor those documentation requirements to ensure that they are not being used to restrict passengers with disabilities from traveling with their service animals.
The DOT also stated that up until now it has allowed for a rather broad definition of service animals but that going forward priority will be placed on ensuring that the most commonly recognized service animals—dogs, cats and, yes, miniature horses—are allowed to travel. Airlines will not be allowed to refuse to transport an animal based exclusively on its breed, a rule that effectively reverses Delta's policy decision last year to ban what it called "pit bull type dogs" as service or support animals on its flights. Airlines will still be permitted to deem that any specific animal, regardless of breed, poses a threat.
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As for how and whether service animals need to be contained within the cabin, there are actually no explicit requirements. “In general, tethering and similar means of controlling an animal . . . would be reasonable in the context of controlling service animals in the aircraft cabin,” the DOT stated.
The agency also didn’t offer concrete guidance on the number of service animals allowable per passenger, but it stated, “Enforcement efforts will generally focus on ensuring that airlines are not restricting passengers from traveling with one [emotional support animal] and a total of three service animals if needed.” The agency also said that airlines cannot restrict the total number of service and support animals on a single flight.
A carrier can deny access to a service animal that is too large or too heavy to be accommodated, and the DOT said it would not view it as a violation for an airline to prohibit the transport of service animals younger than four months, as some airlines have done.
Airlines are allowed to ask passengers using a service animal on flights of eight hours or longer 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—although the DOT did not offer a suggestion as to what exactly that kind of documentation or relief entails.
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