Fewer Pets Qualify To Fly With Passengers On U.S. Planes, According To New Ruling
There is no doubt that furry friends can be highly therapeutic, but not all are eligible as service dogs—a distinction that will become painfully clear when the flying public begins to travel routinely again post-pandemic. In a change of policy, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that only designated service dogs will be allowed to accompany passengers on flights starting next month. The federal ruling reclassifying emotional support animals (ESA’s) as pets (now, not allowed on flights) won’t be a surprise. The DOT reports receiving 15,000 opinions during the period open for public comment.
But during a pandemic in which health mandates are openly flouted and Americans, unable to connect with family and friends, have found deep comfort in pets, the implications of the ruling are huge.
The problem is that if you aren’t steeped in the finer points of distinguishing a psychiatric service dog from an ESA, the distinction may either be lost on you—or infuriate you. And if you are a disabled person who counts on a service animal for safety and independence, the nuances of the new law will also need review. There is some language about breeds and respectful questioning of passengers to protect disabled travelers from being interrogated or turned away.
- The ADA defines a service animal as a dog that is “individually trained” to “perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” Tasks must be a clear service. “A seizure dog is a dog that has been trained (or has learned) to respond to a seizure in someone who has epilepsy,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
- A service dog may also provide emotional support. Paws For a Cause, for example, trains dogs to be constant companions to autistic children.
- A doctor’s note, no matter how official it seems, will not qualify an ESA as a service dog. ESA’s are essential to the people who use them and it will be a while before the full effect of this ruling affects their travel plans.
- What some flight attendants called a “Noah’s Ark” in the air, where all types of creatures big and small— birds, pigs, miniature horses and rabbits—boarded with their owners, are over.
Defining Need Gets Blurred
Claims of pets being trained medical companions got out of hand several years ago, undermining the trust of the airline industry and putting people with a true medical need to have a pet as an aide in a precarious position. In 2018, airlines reported that requests for emotional support pets on airlines rose more than 75%, and not coincidentally, reports of bad pet behavior on planes also rose. According to a corporate statement that year, “Delta’s updated policy follows an 84% increase in reported incidents involving service and support animals (2016-2017), including urination/defecation, biting and even a widely reported attack by a 50-pound dog.” United Airlines reported carrying 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017, a steep increase from years past.
The New Normal for Flyers
Just two years later, we are living in a completely new normal, one in which a limit on any type of emotional support may seem like yet another highly unwelcome change. “I feel for dog owners who do not want to put their dogs into the cargo hold of an airplane, it’s not safe for the dogs and feels cruel given the freezing temperatures and total darkness,” said Brian Kelly, CEO and founder of the travel advice site, The Points Guy. But Kelly said, “too many people abused the existing rules for traveling with animals, leading even to passengers and crew members getting hurt. This made things harder for those who were traveling with a legitimate service animal for legitimate reasons.”
John Morris, blogger, disability advocate and founder of Wheelchairtravel.org said that “despite the fact that there was abuse, with some nondisabled people falsely representing their pets as emotional support animals, new restrictions on the carriage of those animals are likely to cause problems for those who have a legitimate need for the companionship of an emotional support animal.
Accepting That Rules Change
The history of pets on flights may surprise you. In the past, it’s true that dogs, cats and, yes, miniature horses were given top priority as service animals. Now, the current rule reserves these spots for dogs only.
Morris is hopeful that the new documentation requirements for traditional service dogs will not be too significant a barrier to disabled people who must travel with a service animal. The Department of Transportation, he says, seems to have struck a reasonable balance after consultation with the disability community and industry stakeholders.
Kelly is also hopeful that the new rules from the DOT will still allow those with true physical or mental health needs to travel with their service animals and hope the industry will change. “There’s no doubt that the vast majority of pet owners would pay a premium to keep their pets safe while traveling, and I’d love to see airlines come up with innovative methods and guidelines safely allow people to travel with their furry friends,” says Kelly.
To reduce the stress of traveling as much as possible, educate yourself on the specifics of the airline you are flying. There are still some foggy areas. Delta, Southwest and others are still reviewing their policies, but by law, they are not required to accommodate nonservice animals. According to New Mobility magazine, people with disabilities plan on traveling, even through the pandemic, although probably staying closer to home and using a wide array of customizable vehicles.
Finding Comfort in Clarity
The updated service animal rules will require airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals. In exchange, the owner must provide documentation created by the Transportation Department. The forms are meant to ensure that owners are bringing pets that are healthy and well trained. If you are traveling over the holidays, check the current rules including a video with closed captioning.
Passengers with emotional support pets I spoke with were understanding. One snowbird in route to Florida will be sitting with their dog on their lap on a long drive down the East coast. Others said frankly it’s not an issue for them. Their family and beloved pet are staying put for the holidays, out of a fear of Covid-19, lack of funds or both.
Saving Your Mental Energy
Of course, if you are dead set on finding a shortcut or workaround, you will likely find yourself typing in ‘service dog certification’ in your browser’s search area. Don’t, say experts. Your best bet is to know the current rules and follow them using the DOT guidelines. Your first red flag should be that most of these sites make no reference to the updated rules. The logos are also strikingly similar to the official ADA service dog certification, which can be confusing. Avoid the rabbit hole. By falling into what may be a fraudulent scheme, you are making it more difficult for people with qualified service animals to travel without disruption and repeated questioning.