Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released a new ruling related to transporting service and emotional support animals under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The voice of the veterinary profession was welcomed by both the airlines and the DOT during discussions of this issue, and our influence is clear in the final rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals.
Among other provisions, the DOT rule defines a service animal as a dog that has been trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. It also allows airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals. This decision more closely aligns the DOT definition with the Department of Justice’s definition of service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while helping ensure that the U.S. air transportation system is safe for the traveling public as well as accessible to individuals with disabilities.
Here are some key highlights of the final rule:
- Airlines are permitted to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than as service animals, and airlines are able to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard an aircraft to two service animals.
- Passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal can be required by the airline to complete and submit an Air Transportation Form developed by the DOT that attests to the animal’s training, good behavior, and health, and that it has been vaccinated against rabies. In the final rule, the DOT modified the form such that the passenger, rather than the veterinarian, attests to the animal’s health and behavior.
- Carriers may require that service animals are harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered onboard the aircraft.
- For flights of eight hours or more, the rule allows airlines to require passengers to submit a DOT form attesting that the animal has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner.
- In addition, the rule allows airlines to require a service animal owner to provide these forms up to 48 hours in advance of the date of travel if the passenger’s reservation was made prior to that time.
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AVMA policy and advocacy efforts are powered by our 96,500-plus member veterinarians, many of whom have been struggling for years with related requests from pet owners and requirements from airlines. The AVMA was deeply engaged as the rule was developed and finalized and was highly influential in the drafting of many key provisions. Collaboration with other stakeholders was critical to success and, accordingly, in 2018, the AVMA convened a roundtable with representatives from the airlines, their member association, and the DOT, and in 2018-2019 hosted a working group that included individuals and organizations experienced in the use and training of service and assistance animals.
During the rulemaking process, the AVMA also raised concerns with the DOT about the forms airlines required as documentation for emotional support animals, which asked veterinarians to attest to the animal’s anticipated behavior on the flight. AVMA explained that veterinarians cannot guarantee the behavior of an animal—especially in a novel environment like an aircraft—and emphasized that veterinarians might refuse to complete and sign such forms if they were expanded beyond the scope of health and behavior that could be assessed during the course of a veterinary examination.
The new rule also reflects the AVMA’s comments regarding the importance of rabies vaccination for protection of both animal and public health, as well as AVMA policy regarding not discriminating against particular breeds of dogs.
This final rule will help limit confusion on what types of animals are to be accommodated in the aircraft cabin and in what capacity. This positive outcome is another example of the collective strength of the AVMA in supporting its members and protecting the health and welfare of animals.
To find AVMA resources on assistance animals, including emotional support animals, visit avma.org/AssistanceAnimals.