The Department of Transportation on Traveling with Service Animals: New Regulations

Posted by Reeve Foundation Staff in Daily Dose on January 11, 2021 # Advocacy and Policy

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently adopted a new rule regulating the use of service animals in air travel. As a result of changes made to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), service animals are now defined only as any breed of a dog trained to do work or perform tasks in support of individuals with disabilities. Under the new definition, airlines may treat emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals.airplane

The new rule will allow airlines to require that documentation attesting to an animal’s health, behavior, and training be completed for each trip. (Round trip tickets will count as one trip.) The one-page Air Transportation Form was developed by the Department of Transportation and includes questions about the animal’s most recent rabies vaccination and the name of its training organization; for flights longer than 8-hours, an additional form attesting to the animal’s ability to relieve itself in a sanitary manner is required.

Passengers, rather than a veterinarian, will be allowed to fill out these forms, which are the only ones required under the new rule; individual airlines are not permitted to request any additional documentation as a condition of transport.

The Air Transportation Form will be available at the airport, on the airlines’ websites, and, if requested, by mail. Passengers traveling with service animals will need to submit this form electronically up to 48-hours before the flight or, if reservations are booked at the last minute, as a hard copy at the departure gate on the day of travel. A grace provision included in the rule notes that if the advance notice requirement is not met, the airline must make reasonable efforts to grant the accommodation if it is possible to do so without delaying the flight.

Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Director of Public Policy Kimberly Beer expressed concern that the rule will exacerbate existing challenges for travelers with disabilities.

“Air travel is already so complicated,” Beer says. “We don’t want to create barriers and additional burdens for people traveling with service animals. This adds another layer to an already complicated process.”

The Reeve Foundation has long prioritized improving the access and logistical issues faced by people living with paralysis while traveling. Beer, who is based in Washington, D.C, works to shape legislative policy on behalf of the community and educate policymakers and airlines about the realities of traveling with a disability, from dealing with damage to improperly handled wheelchairs to the difficulties transferring on and off airplanes with staff who have not been educated or trained to support those with disabilities.

As the new rule takes effect in January, Beer is encouraging travelers using service animals to be prepared for confusion at the airport and to take time to study the new requirements.

“Air travel is very difficult for people with spinal cord injuries and those impacted by paralysis,” Beer said. “It’s even more complicated if you don’t know your rights.”

Airlines are prohibited from requiring passengers traveling with service animals to physically check-in at the airport instead of using online check-in. Other changes in the rule that will likely impact people with paralysis include allowing airlines to require that service animals be leashed, harnessed or tethered in the airport and on the plane; limiting service animals to two per passenger; requiring a service animal to fit within its handler’s foot space on the plane; and refusing transportation to animals that exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Read more about the service animal rule in the Federal Register and the rights of disabled passengers travelling by air as protected under the Air Carrier Access Act.

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