DOT Updates ACAA Service Animal Regulations

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In August 8, 2019 the Department of Transportation issued a “Final Statement of Enforcement Policies Regarding Service Animals on Flights”. This document, which clarifies some points in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in regards to service animals and emotional support animals, is the result of a public process which began in May 2018. This process was initiated after the DOT received a number of airline complaints about passengers who were skirting the rules and evading pet carrier fees by falsely claiming that their pets were needed for emotional support. Over 4,500 public comments were received after the Preliminary Rule was posted.

The Final Rule addresses species limitation, confinement, advance notice, and check-in requirements for Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and Psychiatric Service Animals (PSA). And in many cases it also provides some much needed clarity.

Species Limitations

Dogs, cats and miniature horses will be accepted as service animals, ESAs and PSAs. Under the ACAA, airlines are still not required to accommodate unusual species such as snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders.

Breed Restrictions

Breed restrictions are not allowed, but airlines are still allowed to evaluate service animals, ESAs and PSAs for a possible direct threat on a case-by-case basis.

Weight Restrictions

Categorical bans on service animals, ESAs and PSAs over a certain weight, regardless of the type of aircraft, are not allowed.

Age Restrictions

Service animals, ESAs and PSAs must be at least four months old in order to travel by air.

Documentation Requirements

Documentation related to an animal’s vaccination, training or behavior are allowed, in order for the airline to determine if the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Mental Health Professional Form

Under the ACAA, airlines are not required to transport PSAs or ESAs unless the passenger provides current (less than one year old) documentation from a licensed mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker) stating that the passenger has an emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and that the passenger needs a ESA or PSA to mitigate that condition. Airlines cannot reject a medical form or letter just because it’s not on the airline’s form if it contains the required information.

Proof that an Animal is a Service Animal

Airline personnel are allowed to seek credible verbal assurance from passengers that they have a disability and require a service animal. If the passenger’s disability is not apparent, airline personnel may question the passenger to determine their need for a service animal, even if the animal has a harness, tag or vest.

Advance Notice

No advance notice is required for passengers traveling with a service animal; however airlines may require advance notice from passengers traveling with a ESA or PSA.

Check-in Requirement

Airlines are allowed to require lobby check-in for passengers with an ESA or PSA, as these passengers are required to check in one hour before check-in time for the general public.

Containment

Service animals, ESAs and PSAs must be tethered or similarly contained while in the aircraft cabin.

Number of Service Animals per Passenger

Generally, one service animal, ESA or PSA per passenger should be sufficient, but up to three will be allowed if the passenger shows a need.

Number of Service Animals per Aircraft

Airlines cannot restrict the number of service animals allowed on any flight.

Flight Length Restrictions

Airlines cannot automatically prohibit ESAs or PSAs from traveling on flights over eight hours. They can however, require passengers on flights over eight hours to provide documentation that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight, or that it can do so in a way that won’t present a health or sanitation issue.

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