Hubble, a curly coated retriever service dog, lays at his handler’s feet while onboard an airplane. Image courtesy of Alex Payne.

After receiving more than 15,000 comments on the notice of proposed rulemaking, including several groups advocating for the rights of service and emotional support animal handlers, the DOT released their Final Rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals. In the 122-page document, the differences between current regulation and the new changes taking effect in 30 days are mostly dismaying. While some of the reforms to the ACAA are welcomed- such as finally treating psychiatric service animals equally to any other service animal instead of as ESAs, and prohibiting airlines from requiring physical check-in- some changes, especially excluding ESAs and miniature service horses (MSH) as service animals, came as devastating news to most disabled air-travelers. In summary, the Final Rule changes are as follows:

  • Changes the definition of “service animal” from “Any animal”, to, “A dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability”- effectively excluding miniature service horse handlers from being able to fly with their MSH if airlines change policy, despite their current long standing recognition as service animals under the ADA and other laws;

  •   No longer considers an emotional support animal (ESA) to be a service animal– forcing passengers with ESAs to pay a pet fee to fly their ESA in cargo or leave them home if airlines choose to change their ESA policies;

  • Requires airlines to treat psychiatric service animals (PSDs) the same as other service animals;

  • Allows airlines to require forms developed by DOT attesting to a service animal’s health, behavior and training, and if taking a long flight attesting that the service animal can either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner;

  • Allows airlines to require individuals traveling with a service animal to provide the DOT service animal form(s) up to 48 hours in advance of the date of travel if the passenger’s reservation was made prior to that time;

  • Prohibits airlines from requiring passengers with a disability who are traveling with a service animal to physically check-in at the airport instead of using the online check-in process

  • Allows airlines to require a person with a disability seeking to travel with a service animal to provide the DOT service animal form(s) at the passenger’s departure gate on the date of travel;

  • Allows airlines to limit the number of service animals traveling with a single passenger with a disability to two service animals;

  • Allows airlines to require a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft;

  • Allows airlines to require that service animals be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times in the airport and on the aircraft– which is arduous for handlers whose disability/disabilities prevent the use of these devices and/or if these devices would interfere with a service animal’s work or task;

  • Continues to allow airlines to refuse transportation to service animals that exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others; and

  • Continues to prohibit airlines from refusing to transport a service animal solely based on breed.

This decision by the DOT sets a disturbing precedent which could very well have a ‘ripple effect’ to every business and other venue which is subject to the ADA.

The DOT states, “This final rule is intended to ensure that our air transportation system is safe for the traveling public and accessible to individuals with disabilities.” However, The DOT’s Final Ruling has severely and negatively impacted a large group of persons; and it’s managed to make travel much less accessible for persons with psychiatric disabilities and miniature service horse handlers. The alterations force people to think about how, or if, they travel by air. Having to pay extra fees to fly an ESA in cargo isn’t always financially possible, especially when many disabled persons rely on financial assistance. Some persons may have difficulty managing the myriad of new changes on their own. Furthermore, utilizing a miniature service horse or an ESA is often not a person’s first step in mitigating their disability/disabilities; and they’re not easily substituted for another mitigation method like medication or a mobility device. While excluding ESAs cuts down on non-disabled people misrepresenting their untrained pets as ESAs in order to fly for free, it doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to lie in the DOT’s new service animal forms or stop bringing aggressive and untrained animals into airports altogether.

What the DOT fails to recognize is that changing regulations does nothing when there is zero enforcement. Even with previous clarification and the Final Rule specifying that the DOT/ACAA prohibits airlines from refusing transport of service animals based on breed, Delta Airlines continues to violate the ACAA and defy the DOT with the breed ban they imposed in 2018. If the DOT will not step up and prohibit Delta from refusing to transport bully breed assistance animals, then what does altering the rules actually accomplish; other than causing disabled persons stress and financial hardship? If airlines were already allowed under the ACAA to: deny access to and/or remove aggressive animals, obtain credible verbal assurance, require documentation proving the disability-related need for an emotional support/psychiatric service animal, etc. and they still had issues with attacks, accidents and fraud, then what’s compelling airlines to train their employees more thoroughly or to utilize additional forms and hoops to have disabled passengers jump through? Historically, not much.  

Despite the ACAA being widely regarded by the service dog community as adequate as a law in its current form, and the primary culprit of animal issues in airports being the lack of proper utilization and enforcement of the ADA and ACAA by individual airlines and the DOT, how we fly with our assistance animals is changing- for better and for worse. Our thoughts are with all ESA and Miniature Service Horse handlers who followed the laws and have amazing ethics. It is wildly unfortunate that the DOT does not understand how vast the umbrella of disabilities and their impairments is- and how much ESAs and Miniature Service Horses can be paramount in mitigating those disabilities.

The reform of the ACAA as a result of complaints from airlines, private companies and individuals is gravely concerning when we look at how much independence and access is being taken away from disabled persons with the new changes. Having to give advance notice and being required to fill out ‘forms’ in order for a disabled person to simply utilize their service dog have long been the fears of many handlers- now that those fears have come to fruition via the Final Ruling, what could happen next? Will we have to stop and fill out forms when running to the grocery store for a gallon of milk? Must we call restaurants in advance to let them know a medical device will be in attendance? This decision by the DOT sets a disturbing precedent which could very well have a ‘ripple effect’ to every business and other venue which is subject to the ADA. While some of the service dog community is relieved to see the possibility of ESA-free flights in the future due to encounters with aggressive and unruly animals, it should provoke thought on how easily rights can be changed or taken away from anyone with an assistance animal- and how the lack of enforcement of fraud/misrepresentation by businesses and other entities can have a significant impact on ‘legitimate’ handlers.

In short, under the current ACAA, airlines have always had the power to remove animals that are aggressive, unruly, not housebroken, uncommon species, etc. and to stop fraud in its tracks- they simply chose not to. Enforcement of the ACAA to protect the safety and accessibility of air-travelers should never have been at the expense of disabled persons and our rights, but we can hope that at the very least, these new changes spark newfound accountability within airlines and the DOT.