By Cara Bradley ’20
This February the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released a notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the definition of a service animal in air transportation. This change would allow airlines the right to prohibit emotional support animals (ESAs) on planes, limiting the ability of passengers to falsely represent their pets as service animals (U.S. Department of Transportation). The DOT stated that these new rules would ensure the safety and comfort of all passengers, a necessary precaution after the uptick in service animals onboard.
The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 guarantees cost-free in-cabin travel for service animals identified as: “any animal that is 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” (U.S. Department of Transportation). This ambiguous definition of service animals allows the free travel of ESAs, which has resulted in many incidents regarding untrained animals aboard planes. United Airlines and Delta Airlines have placed restrictions on passengers flying with service animals in response to these recent incidents, however further restrictions must be put in place by the DOT to prevent the likelihood of such situations.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ESAs and service animals serve two different purposes as ESAs include any animal that provides a “therapeutic benefit” to individuals with psychiatric disabilities and other mental impairments. Meanwhile, service animals are defined as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities” (“Service Animals”). Many questions have been raised over the validity and necessity of ESAs on planes after the number of passengers traveling with their pets increased tenfold from 1992-2002 (Marchand 2020). The ACAA’s broad definition of service animal currently allows passengers to travel cost-free with their ESAs, avoiding fees of at least $125 for international flights. Evading expensive fees and the hassle of arranging alternative transportation for their pets, more and more passengers have started flying with their ESAs.
The DOT’s requirements aim to limit the misuse of ACAA protections, which has been seen through the wide variety of “service animals” flying in recent years. While airlines do require documentation for passengers travelling with a service animal, a recent influx of passengers have been accompanied by their emotional support pigs, turtles, iguanas, and other unconventional animals, leading to grave concerns over the safety of all passengers. The current definition of a service animal is dangerously too broad, resulting in passengers taking advantage of the protections it provides. It is intended for passengers with disabilities requiring the accompaniment and use of a service animal, rather than those looking to avoid expensive fees to fly with their pets. The DOT’s proposed rules would no longer provide passengers this right by making a clear distinction between ESAs and service animals, which will remain allowed aboard (U.S. Department of Transportation).
In 2017, Delta employees reported increased acts of aggression, such as “barking, growling, lunging and biting from service and support animals, behavior not typically seen in these animals when properly trained and working” (Delta News Hub). In one incident a Delta passenger was mauled by an emotional support dog resulting in facial wounds requiring 28 stitches (Yamanouchi 2017). In 2018, an emotional support dog injured a young passenger when its teeth scraped her face onboard. After witnessing the attack, passenger Todd Rice tweeted: “@SouthwestAir flight 1904 allows a support dog on the plane, bites kid, paramedics now on plane. Why are dogs on the plane?! Never again will I fly SWA” (Phillips 2018). The same year, multiple dogs had accidents mid-flight, with one resulting in an emergency landing due to the discomfort of passengers onboard. Such incidents of misuse led to Delta’s 2018 policy requiring advance documentation for passengers to fly with their ESAs in order to ensure the safety of all passengers. According to Delta’s website, this policy is in response to “an 84 percent increase in reported animal incidents since 2016, including urination/defecation, biting and even a widely reported attack by a 70-pound dog” (Delta News Hub).
While ensuring the nondiscriminatory access for individuals with disabilities to travel with their service animals should be the DOT’s top priority, where should the line be drawn when it comes to the safety and comfort of other airline passengers? According to the DOT, these new regulations would deter “fraudulent use of other animals not qualified as service animals” and prohibit “animals that are not trained to behave properly in the public, effectively balancing the safety and protections off all passengers” (U.S. Department of Transportation).
ESAs have proven to provide valuable companionship and benefit to their owners. However, the current definition of service animal has provided too much leeway for pet owners, allowing the common misuse of the term. The time has come for a narrower definition of a service animal in air transportation. The DOT’s proposed rules will serve the needs of individuals with disabilities while protecting the equally important safety of other airline passengers.