U.S. Airlines Could Soon Restrict Emotional Support Animals Under New DOT Rules

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The U.S. Department of Transportation will no longer consider emotional support animals as service animals, allowing American airlines to potentially ban flying with emotional support animals—or at least relegating them to flying as regular pets.

The Transportation Department announced Wednesday, in a revision to its Air Carrier Access Act, that it will define a service animal as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” a news release says.

Under the new rules, airlines will also be allowed to require passengers to fill out DOT-approved paperwork attesting to their service dog’s health, behavior, training, and ability to either keep from going to the bathroom on the plane or do so sanitarily.

Airlines could also require passengers with service dogs to provide their forms 48 hours before their flight takes off or at the airport gate before they depart, the DOT says.

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According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, emotional support animals (also known as ESAs) offer companionship and support to people diagnosed with a psychological disorder. A health professional usually provides a letter explaining why the patient needs an ESA so that person can fly and live with the animal. Unlike for service dogs, who are taught to perform certain tasks, there’s no required training for ESAs.

“If the dog’s presence simply provides comfort, it is an ESA,” the AVMA writes.

Per The Washington Post, trade group Airlines for America put the number of ESAs aboard commercial flights at 751,000 in 2017.

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But veteran and disability groups and airline personnel alike have endorsed a ban of ESAs on planes. First, there’s a widespread perception of fraud surrounding ESAs—look no further than this New Yorker writer faking turtle, snake, turkey, alpaca, and pig ESAs—that reinforces thinking that people simply gain ESA approval to take their pets places.

While plenty of ESAs are great at flying and have no issues, some high-profile incidents have occurred. Last year, a dog bit an American Airlines flight attendant, requiring five stitches on his left hand. Two years ago, a support dog bit a 6-year-old girl on a Southwest Airlines plane.

With the new federal rules—which go into effect 30 days after the undetermined publication in the Federal Register—those two dogs might not be allowed on the plane. Or, they’ll have to fly the way regular pets do.

“This is a wonderful step,” Albert Rizzi, founder of My Blind Spot, a group focused on disability advocacy, said last year as the DOT took public comment on the new rules. Some people, he added, “want to have the benefits of having a disability without actually losing the use of their limbs or senses just so they can take their pet with them.”

Airlines and other industry groups applauded the DOT as well.

“This new rule reflects a respect for individuals with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share, while providing clear and practical guidelines that will eliminate the abuse of the system that has been a source of concern for our team members and customers,” said American Airlines spokesperson Stacy Day told CNN.

The new rules also allow airlines to limit the number of service dogs per person to two. The airlines will also be allowed to confine service dogs to their handler’s feet space on the plane (which we all know is already a pretty cramped area).

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While most of the rules allow airlines—which haven’t announced any changes to their own rules yet—the freedom to restrict furry passengers, one of the new rules prohibits them from “refusing to transport a service animal solely based on breed.”

That news was greeted with celebration from the Humane Society of the United States and its legislative fund.

“The Department of Transportation has taken a huge step toward correcting the historic wrongs perpetrated against a group of dogs based simply on how they look,” wrote Kitty Block, Humane Society CEO, and Sara Amundson, the legislative fund’s president. “We applaud the agency for doing the right thing, both by the animals and by the people who love and rely on them, whether in their travel or their day-to-day lives.”

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