Air Travel and Service Animals: What You Need to Know Before You Travel

Welcome to Part IV of our series on service animals.  In the first three installments, we discussed what service animals are, the rules governing service animals in public accommodations, and how the Fair Housing Act determines if service animals must be accommodated in housing.

Today, we will examine the rules for service animals and airline travel.

The pertinent law we will be looking at is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 19861)the act dictates that the Department of Transportation [DOT] must promulgate rules for the airlines to following regarding disabled customers. The DOT published these regulations in 1990.

 

The Rules for Service Animals as Determined by the Department of Transportation

Subsection 382.55 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) dictate the rules for service animals during air travel. Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ACAA permits both service animals and emotional support animals to fly with their owners; yet, the airlines are permitted to require documentation for emotional support animals.

Also, as opposed to the ADA that requires service animals to be dogs in most cases, many different types of animals may qualify as emotional support or service animals2)the DOT explicitly cites cats and monkeys as permissible, and snakes, spiders and ferrets as non-permissible.

The law states in pertinent part:

(a) Carriers shall permit dogs and other service animals used by persons with a disability to accompany the persons on a flight.

(1) Carriers shall accept as evidence that an animal is a service animal identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags, or the credible verbal assurances of the qualified individual with a disability using the animal.

(2) Carriers shall permit a service animal to accompany a qualified individual with a disability in any seat in which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation.

 

Note in subpart 1 the conjunction “or”; as in, the airline’s employees shall accept written documentation or credible verbal assurances.

The DOT provides guidance on what the rule means by “or”3)as written by Samuel Podberesky, Assistant General Counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, 15 July 2005.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

 

Request documentation for service animals other than emotional support animals: The law allows airline personnel to ask for documentation as a means of verifying that the animal is a service animal, but DOT urges carriers not to require documentation as a condition for permitting an individual to travel with his or her service animal in the cabin unless a passenger’s verbal assurance is not credible.  In that case, the airline may require documentation as a condition for allowing the animal to travel in the cabin.  The purpose of documentation is to substantiate the passenger’s disability-related need for the animal’s accompaniment, which the airline may require as a condition to permit the animal to travel in the cabin.  Examples of documentation include a letter from a licensed professional treating the passenger’s condition (e.g., physician, mental health professional, vocational case manager, etc.)

Require documentation for emotional support animals:  With respect to an animal used for emotional support (which need not have specific training for that function), airline personnel may require current documentation (i.e., not more than one year old) on letterhead from a mental health professional stating

 (1) that the passenger has a mental health-related disability;

(2) that having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment or to assist the passenger (with his or her disability); and

(3) that the individual providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his or her professional care.

 Airline personnel may require this documentation as a condition of permitting the animal to accompany the passenger in the cabin.  The purpose of this provision is to prevent abuse by passengers that do not have a medical need for an emotional support animal and to ensure that passengers who have a legitimate need for emotional support animals are permitted to travel with their service animals on the aircraft.  Airlines are not permitted to require the documentation to specify the type of mental health disability, e.g., panic attacks.

 

For service animals, the DOT “urges” airline employees not to require documentation, but they still “may require” documentation if the verbal assurances from the passenger are not credible.4)Additionally, the DOT requires that the evaluation of the verbal assurances be done in “good faith”.

For emotional support animals the DOT requires written documentation from a mental health provider to “prevent abuse.”  For either type of animal companion, having written documentation with you will likely make the trip smoother for all of the parties involved.

 

When an Airplane is Permitted to Reject Service Animals

Similar to the ADA and the Fair Housing Act, airlines are not required to make accommodations that would create an “undue burden” or “fundamentally alter” the character of their business.  The DOT provides examples of what an “undue burden” might be:

  • Asking another passenger to give up the space in front of his or her seat to accommodate a service animal;

  • Denying transportation to any individual on a flight in order to provide an accommodation to a passenger with a service animal;

  • Furnishing more than one seat per ticket; and

  • Providing a seat in a class of service other than the one the passenger has purchased.

 

But what happens if an airline denies the right of a disabled person to bring along a service or emotional support animal?

Each airline is required to have a Complaint Resolution Official (CRO) available to assist during all business hours.

If there is a dispute about a service animal, request to speak to the CRO5)either in person or over the phone.  The CRO should have the authority to make the final determination regarding a service animal6)or any other complaint regarding discrimination based on a disability.

If the request is rejected, the CRO has ten days to provide a written explanation why this is so.

For folks traveling with service animals, the DOT recommends requesting a preferred seat 24 hours in advance takeoff and checking-in at least an hour before scheduled departure.

Even if this is not done, the airlines are required to accommodate the request to the best of their ability.

Providing advance notice may reduce the hassle and stress.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. the act dictates that the Department of Transportation [DOT] must promulgate rules for the airlines to following regarding disabled customers. The DOT published these regulations in 1990
2. the DOT explicitly cites cats and monkeys as permissible, and snakes, spiders and ferrets as non-permissible
3. as written by Samuel Podberesky, Assistant General Counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, 15 July 2005
4. Additionally, the DOT requires that the evaluation of the verbal assurances be done in “good faith”
5. either in person or over the phone
6. or any other complaint regarding discrimination based on a disability
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