DOT Issues Final Rule Restricting Definition of Service Animals to Specifically Trained Dogs

On Wednesday, the Department of Transportation issued a final rule that allowed airlines to restrict service animals accompanying those with purported disabilities to only dogs who are affirmatively trained to be service animals. The stated purpose of this rule was to assist airlines and disability advocacy organizations who reported safety and hygiene concerns resulting from emotional support animals, falsely being labeled as service animals, being legally allowed on planes that have included in recent times both tiny horses and peacocks

The rule still leaves it in the discretion of the airline to decide what it recognizes as a service animal, including whether it recognizes an emotional support animal as a service animal, with the exception of dogs being trained for the explicit purpose of operating as service animals. The rule noted that a service animal is now defined solely as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” The rule further gives airlines legal authority to recognize any “emotional support animal” as a pet and not a valid service animal and limit the number of service animals per passenger to two.

Additionally, the rule gives airlines authority to implement certain attestations and documentation requirements prior to boarding with any service animal. For example, if a flight is longer than eight hours, the airline is allowed to require a signed statement from a passenger that confirms that the service animal can last the period of the flight without soiling the plane in an unhygienic fashion. Additionally, the airline can mandate a form, even as late as at the gate just prior to departure, attesting by the passenger that the claimed service animal has undergone appropriate training for service animal recognition and is in general good health. All documentation can be mandated as far ahead as 48 hours prior to flight departure, but all reporting requirements shall not interfere with a disabled person’s accommodations to enter any airport, including interfering with services such as curbside arrival/departure. 

Finally, certain discretionary spatial and animal maintenance requirements are added via the rule. All airlines are allowed to require that service animals must fit “on their handler’s lap or within its handler’s foot space on the aircraft” and to require all service animals “be harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered in areas of the airport that they own, lease, or control, and on the aircraft.”

The DOT stated that the legal authority for the rule is found under the Department’s Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which the department asserted required the DOT to issue regulations concerning the travel of service animals in a nondiscriminatory way toward the disabled but not in a way that was unreasonable “given the realities and limitations of air service and the onboard environment of commercial airplanes. Any requirement for the accommodation of passengers traveling with service animals onboard aircraft necessarily must be balanced against the health, safety, and mental and physical well-being of the other passengers and crew, and must not interfere with the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft.”