The US Department of Transportation published its final rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals today, bringing an end to the Emotional Support Animal (ESA) era. Under the new guidelines only dogs may be designated as service animals and owners must attest that they are specially trained to provide services to the passenger, among other requirements.
The filing comes after two years of debate and nine months after the DOT first proposed the final rules structure. Since the Notice of Proposed Rule Making filing in February more than 15,000 comments were received. The DOT processed and accounted for those comments but made no major changes from the NPRM as a result.
Among the key rules:
Service Animals must be a trained dog
Only dogs are considered service animals under the new rules. The DOT will not allow other species to serve in that role. The Agency also requires that the dogs be 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.” This definition was chosen to mirror the definition used by the Department of Justice in the Americans with Disabilities Act, helping to align the Air Carrier Access Act with the broader experience passengers traveling with service animals with be familiar with.
Moreover, as part of the new rules airlines may require travelers to complete and submit to the airline a form, developed by DOT, attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior, and certifying the animal’s good health. Airlines may require passengers to provide this form up to 48 hours prior to departure, assuming the reservation was made in advance. Otherwise it will be required at the gate.
Service Animals are limited
Passengers are limited to only two service animals and they must be small enough to fit on the traveler’s lap or in the foot well at a passenger’s seat. The size limitation is one of the more controversial sections of the new rule.
The DOT ” is sensitive to the fact that many large service animals, such as German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers, are commonly used to assist individuals with disabilities” but believes the size rule won’t be too troubling because “these animals are often trained to fit into small spaces.”
Moreover, airlines are required to block an adjacent seat if it is available, or to allow a free change to a later flight if sufficient space cannot be arranged. The airline can also offer to transport the animal free of charge in the hold to meet this requirement. Or, of course, passengers can purchase an extra seat to ensure sufficient space.
Airlines can charge for Emotional Support Animals
The ruling explicitly notes “Airlines will no longer be required to recognize emotional support animals (ESAs) as service animals.” This is described as “eliminating a market inefficiency…as airlines are currently prohibited from charging a pet fee for transporting emotional support animals.” With the new rule in place the DOT estimates a windfall of $54-59.6 million per year to the airlines through in-cabin pet fees that are not permitted under the legacy guidelines.
Additional highlights of the ruling can be seen below. The full filing is available here.
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