The Department of Transportation is considering overhauling current rules for service animals on planes, including allowing airlines to prohibit those used for emotional support.
The proposed changes announced on Wednesday include only allowing specially trained service dogs to qualify as service animals, which ride for free in a plane’s cabin. Any other animal used for emotional support or simply to make a passenger “feel better” would be considered a pet and airlines would not be required to allow them on board, the DOT said.
The DOT would also prohibit airlines from refusing a service animal solely on the basis of breed. Delta Airlines has a controversial policy of prohibiting “pit bull type dogs” on its flights.
Passengers wanting to ride with Fido would instead have to fill out a federal form attesting that their dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. The dog would need similar proof of good behavior, good health and having the ability to not relieve itself or do so in a sanitary manner.
The department said it will allow 60 days for the public to comment on the proposed changes before making a decision.
“Today’s [Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] is intended to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system,” the department said in a statement.
The changes follow concerns raised by travelers with disabilities, airlines, flight attendants and airports. These concerns include passengers falsely identifying their pets as service animals, the department said.
Previous incidents involving emotional support animals and planes include people trying to fly with a peacock, a hamster, a pig and a squirrel .
Albert Rizzi, founder of the disability advocacy group My Blind Spot, celebrated the DOT’s crackdown.
“This is a wonderful step in the right direction for people like myself who are dependent on and reliant on legitimate service animals,” he told The Associated Press. Some people, he said, “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.”
The National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy group for people with disabilities, said it disagrees with the DOT’s proposed rules, however, calling the proposed documentation for service animals “overly burdensome and discriminatory.”
“These proposals will make it much harder for people with disabilities to travel. It’s unconscionable that the DOT is putting convenience for the airline industry ahead of the rights of people with disabilities to travel freely like all other citizens,” the organization said in a statement Thursday. “We acknowledge that some people have misrepresented themselves and their pets as people with disabilities with service or emotional support animals. But it is rare. These proposals are a vast overreaction to an uncommon problem.”
The definitions of “service animals” and “emotional support animals” can be somewhat confusing.
The Americans With Disabilities Act, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability, defines a service animal as one trained for specific work or tasks to aid a person with a disability. It defines a service animal as a dog or, in some cases, a miniature horse. The ADA does not cover emotional support or “comfort” animals.
However, U.S. air travel is not governed by the ADA, but by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).
Current rules under the ACAA currently make less of a distinction between service animals and emotional support animals, and define a service animal as an animal “individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” ACAA rules do not currently limit the definition by species, but note that airlines are not required to accept “snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders.” The DOT’s proposed rules would exclude emotional support animals from the definition, and narrow the definition of service animals to include only dogs.
Hilary Hanson contributed reporting.