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Updated federal rules for flying with service animals took effect in January 2021 and the changes have caused confusion for travelers and airlines. In some cases, people’s service dogs were denied boarding.
Two women told The Arizona Republic that Allegiant Air wrongfully denied their service dogs. One of them had been unaware prior to her flight that the rules had changed.
In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation revised the Air Carrier Access Act. The DOT issued a final ruling that outlines how airlines must accommodate passengers traveling with service animals. The changes included:
- No longer allowing emotional support animals as service animals.
- Narrowing the definition of a service animal to only include dogs.
- Requiring airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals without additional documentation.
- Allowing airlines to require passengers to submit paperwork before boarding with their service dog.
The full 122-page document can be found at https://www.transportation.gov.
If you travel with a service dog, here’s what you should know before booking a flight.
What are the new rules for flying with service dogs?
Among the changes that took effect on Jan. 11, 2021, are:
- Airlines can require a traveler with a service dog to complete a DOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form and a Service Animal Relief Attestation Form at least 48 hours prior to departure.
- Airlines are no longer required to recognize non-task-trained animals such as emotional support animals, comfort animals and service animals in training as service animals.
- Airlines can limit passengers to two task-trained service animals per person.
- Miniature horses, cats, rabbits and other animals are no longer considered service animals.
- Airlines cannot require passengers with psychiatric service animals to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional.
- Passengers traveling with service animals cannot be required to physically check in at the airport.
- Service animals can be required to fit within the handler’s foot space on the plane.
What is a service animal?
According to the DOT, “A service animal is a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”
Airlines “are prohibited from refusing to transport a service animal based solely on breed or generalized physical type, as distinct from an individualized assessment of the animal’s behavior and health,” the final rule states.
Service dogs, according to the DOT, do not run around freely, bark or growl repeatedly, injure people or urinate or defecate outside of allowed areas.
A trained service animal will remain under the control of its handler,” the final rule reads. “An animal that engages in such disruptive behavior demonstrates that it has not been successfully trained to behave properly in a public setting and carriers are not required to treat it as a service animal without a carrier in the cabin, even if the animal performs an assistive function for a passenger with a disability.”
Can you fly with emotional support dogs?
The DOT’s final rule “excludes all non-task-trained animals, such as emotional support animals, comfort animals and service animals in training.”
However, airlines are allowed, at their discretion, to transport emotional support animals without extra charge. Many airlines, such as United Airlines and American Airlines, treat emotional support animals the same as other pets, which are usually required to be confined to their carriers and incur extra fees.
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What do I need for my service dog to fly?
Carriers can choose to not require any forms from these travelers.
The Service Animal Air Transportation Form is intended to “allow airlines to receive direct assurances from service animal users of their animal’s good behavior and training,” according to the DOT’s final rule. It educates passengers on how their service dog is expected to behave and potentially deters “individuals who might otherwise seek to claim falsely that their pets are service animals.”
Flights that are eight hours or longer can require a Relief Attestation Form, which confirms that the service dog “can relieve itself on the aircraft without creating a health/sanitation issue.”
Airlines can require that these forms be submitted at least 48 hours in advance of departure, and most have adopted this rule. If a last-minute flight is booked, the traveler can submit the forms at the airport. One form covers all segments of a round-trip flight.
The DOT’s final rule reads: “If a passenger’s reservation was made less than 48 hours in advance of the first originally scheduled departure time on the passenger’s itinerary, you may not require that passenger provide advance notice of his or her intent to travel with a service animal. You may require that the passenger complete the forms … and submit a copy of the form to you at the passenger’s departure gate on the date of travel.”
It is a federal crime to give false information on the forms. If an airline suspects fraud, it can notify the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection, which may refer reports to the Office of the Inspector General for investigation and prosecution.
The forms can be found at https://www.transportation.gov.
Can you list yourself as your service animal’s trainer on the DOT form?
Yes. On the Service Animal Air Transportation Form, service dog users are asked to fill in the name of the animal trainer or training organization and the trainer’s phone number. If you task-trained your dog yourself, you are permitted to write your own name.
According to the final rule, “service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.”
“While DOT provides space on its form for a service animal handler to state the organization or individual that trained the service animal to do work or perform tasks to assist the handler, DOT does not require that individuals with disabilities have their animal trained or evaluated by an accredited organization as a condition of transport,” the final rule reads.
Does your service dog need certification to fly?
No. Your service dog does not need to be task-trained by an accredited dog-training organization.
However, a service dog must be “both trained to perform a task or function for the passenger with a disability” and “trained to behave in public.”
Does a service dog need to wear a vest or other identifier?
Service dogs are not required to wear anything that identifies them as a working dog. However, service dogs must be harnessed, leashed or otherwise tethered at all times, whether in the airport or on an aircraft.
Airline employees are allowed to ask “whether the animal is required to accompany the passenger because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform,” observe its behavior and look for physical indicators such as harnesses and vests in order to verify a dog is a service animal.
According to the final rule, air carriers “are free to view such paraphernalia as evidence that an animal is a service animal; conversely, they are also free to give the presence or lack of presence of such paraphernalia little weight.”
How many service dogs can you bring on a flight?
Airlines are not required to accept more than two service animals per passenger.
Tips for flying with your service dog
Arrive as early as possible. For example, Allegiant Air recommends arriving at least two hours before your departure time.
Submit your DOT form as early as possible. A representative for the airline may ask you for more information about your service dog, such as the tasks it performs. It’s not uncommon for passengers to receive denial letters, and you will need time to resolve the issue before your departure.
Alert the airline that you have a service dog. While booking a flight, look for a way to indicate that you have a service dog. For example, on Allegiant’s website, this can be done by clicking on “special assistance.”
Make sure your dog is up to date on vaccinations. The Service Animal Air Transportation Form has a section attesting to the dog’s health, including the date of your dog’s last rabies vaccination and the expiration date.
Your dog doesn’t have to be small to fly. If your service dog does not fit in the space under the seat in front of you, don’t fret.
According to the final rule, “The Department further emphasizes that larger service animals are not automatically prohibited from an aircraft if they do not fit in their handler’s foot space. The final rule continues to require carriers to accommodate such animals by moving them to another seat location within the same class of service where the animal can be accommodated, if available, such as a seat next to an empty seat on the aircraft, if available.”
You can purchase a seat for your dog to ensure that it has sufficient space.
Why did the DOT change its service animal rules?
The changes were prompted in part by inconsistent definitions among federal agencies on what constitutes a service animal and an increase of travelers fraudulently claiming their pets were service animals.
“It is reasonable to predict that the Department’s definition will result in an overall reduction in the number of uncrated animals onboard aircraft, thereby reducing the overall number of animal misbehavior incidents (and the overall number of potential allergic reactions) onboard aircraft,” the final rule reads.
The final rule more closely aligns the DOT’s definition of a service animal with the Department of Justice’s definition under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
According to the final rule, the Service Animal Air Transportation Form “would have the potential to serve as a deterrent for individuals who might otherwise seek to claim falsely that their pets are service animals, as those individuals may be less likely to falsify a federal form and thus risk the potential for criminal prosecution.”
The two DOT forms are also intended to help service animal handlers as they “will no longer have to navigate different forms propounded by different airlines.”
How to find an airline’s pet and service animal policies
Here are the links for some of the air carriers that fly out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport:
Can an airline deny boarding to your service dog?
Yes. The DOT allows airlines to refuse service dogs under certain circumstances. These include if the traveler does not provide any required DOT service animal forms.
However, if you book your flight less than 48 hours before departure, the airline “must still provide the accommodation if you can do so by making reasonable efforts, without delaying the flight.”
Airline personnel can “make an individualized assessment based on reasonable judgement and objective evidence” and deny a service dog if it causes a “significant disruption in the aircraft or at the airport” or poses a direct threat to people’s health or safety.
Airlines “must not deny transportation to the service animal if there are means available short of refusal that would mitigate the problem (e.g., muzzling a barking service dog or taking other steps to comply with animal health regulations needed to permit entry of the service animal into a domestic territory or a foreign country),” according to the final rule.
Also, “The final rule allows airlines to preclude transport of a service animal if doing so would violate applicable safety, health or other regulations of a U.S. federal agency, a U.S. territory or a foreign government.”
What can you do if an airline denies your service dog?
Travelers who experience disability-related problems can call the DOT’s toll-free hotline at 800-778-4838 or 800-455-9880 (TTY). The hotline can provide general information about your rights and assist with time-sensitive, disability-related issues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time on weekdays, with the exception of federal holidays.
“If you encounter a disability-related issue about an airline accommodation or service, ask to speak to the airline’s Complaint Resolution Official. A CRO is the airline’s expert in disability related issues in air travel and has the authority to resolve complaints on behalf of the airline,” the DOT’s page for air travel complaints reads.
A spokesperson for the DOT told The Republic, “If a consumer believes that an airline has discriminated against him or her on the basis of his or her disability, which includes not providing required accommodations, the consumer can quickly and easily file a complaint with the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection through its online complaint form.”
The complaint will be forwarded to the airline for response, at which point an analyst at the DOT will review both statements and determine whether the airline violated the traveler’s rights. A DOT attorney will then review the case, and an analysis of their findings will be mailed to the complainant.
For more information, go to https://www.transportation.gov.
If an airline denies transportation to a service animal, it is required to provide a written statement of the reason for refusal.
According to the final rule, “This statement must include the specific basis for the carrier’s opinion that the refusal meets the (DOT’s) standards.” The airline should provide this written explanation either at the airport or within 10 days of refusal.
According to the DOT’s website, “You may be able to seek recourse through small claims court.” A separate page explains that “You may file a complaint in small claims court when you can show that a person or a business owes you money or has harmed you financially and will not pay.”
Corey Lovato, a staff attorney at the Arizona Center for Disability Law, told The Arizona Republic that options for recovery are limited because the ACAA “does not allow for, essentially, a person to file a lawsuit against the airline.”
“All they can do is file a complaint with the Department Transportation that they may or may not investigate, and if they don’t (investigate), (the person’s) only remedy is to file a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation,” he said.
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