The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Wednesday that it has passed a revision to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which removes the requirement for airlines to treat emotional support animals the same way it would treat traditional service animals, essentially removing the protection which guarantees no-cost flights for these types of animals.
The ACAA revisions include changes to the definition of a service animal to specifically reflect "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability" regardless of breed. While this does still include the stipulation that psychiatric service animals be treated in the same manner as regular service animals, it specifically removes protections for emotional support animals and allows airlines to treat them as pets rather than workers supporting an individual with a disability.
Moreover, the change requires that a single handler can only board a flight with up to two service animals which must fit within the confines of the passenger's foot area of the plane. Airlines are also permitted to require forms developed by the DOT which attest to a service animal's health, behavior, and training.
Airlines have worked to crack down on the number of animals in plane cabins for quite some time. In 2017 alone, a documented 56 percent uptick of emotional support animals were taken onto flights, increasing from 481,000 to 751,00 in just twelve months. And that didn't include just dogs, but also hamsters, peacocks, pigs, and even miniature horses have taken to the sky under the protection of emotional support animals in the past.
But that could now change—and it will most likely will—should airlines choose to recognize the revisions to the ACAA.
Industry organizations like Airlines for America and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants have praised the DOT for this change, indicating that it creates a safer environment for crewmembers and passengers by removing untrained or undertrained animals from cabins.
“[The ruling] sets clear definitions and guidance to ensure people with disabilities and our veterans have necessary service animal assistance while maintaining the safety, health and security of all passengers and crew onboard our planes,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, in a statement. “This final rule will ensure that untrained pets will never roam free in the aircraft cabin again.”
The DOT says that it collected more than 15,000 comments on the proposed rulemaking before drafting its revisions. It feels confident that its new ruling addresses concerns raised by individuals with disabilities, industry stakeholders, and members of the public.
Revisions will go into effect 30 days following publishing into the Federal Register—a date which has not yet been set. At the time of writing, the DOT site that contains ACAA provisions regarding emotional support animals still remains unchanged. A list of the final revisions (and the complete ruling) can be found on the Department of Transportation's website.
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