Service Animals at 30,000 Toes

A federal rule set under the Trump administration allows airlines to restrict the use of animals as disabled accommodation on flights.

After surviving head trauma as a US Air Force photographer, Stacy Pearsall developed anxiety and seizures. As part of her treatment, Pearsall began working with a specially trained two-year-old dog named Charlie. Among other things, Charlie warns Pearsall about people approaching so that Pearsall doesn’t startle – an answer she describes as a “leftover reflex from the war.”

Pearsall is one of a growing number of people in the United States who use surrogate animals – including dogs, cats, birds, and others – to help manage mobility impairments, blindness, depression, allergies, and other disabilities. Despite the benefits of surrogate animals, recent legislative changes have restricted the rights of the people who use them. Now a US Department of Transportation rule passed in December could restrict access to auxiliary animals on airplanes.

The new rule changes the rules of the transportation division under the Air Carrier Access Act, a law that prohibits discrimination in air service based on disability. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide “reasonable accommodation” for passengers who require the assistance of an animal on flights. With a few exceptions, airlines must allow these animals to travel in the cabin with their handler, and they cannot impose special fees for on-board transportation.

The rule makes three major changes to the agency’s rules.

First, the Transportation division restricts the definition of “service animals” – auxiliary animals that can be sheltered on flights as accommodation for the disabled – to include only dogs that have been individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The rule also allows airlines to protect only the service animals that can fit on their handler’s lap or in their footwell. So far, the department has not restricted the definition of the service animal to a specific species or size.

To justify this change, the agency implies that dogs – but not other animals – have the “temperament and ability” to “behave appropriately” in public settings when surrounded by many people. The necessity of a general ban on species seems unclear, however, since according to the rule the dog handlers also have to prove that their service animal is “appropriately trained for behavior in public”.

The transportation department also defends the ban on species, arguing that dogs are the most common type of support animal brought on flights – a justification that clearly inconsistent with the legal requirement that disabled accommodation must be individualized.

Second, the rule removes protection for people with surrogate animals who provide companionship and emotional support. Previously, the agency classified animals with emotional support as a kind of service animal that should be protected under the Discrimination Act for the disabled. However, the new regime allows airlines to treat animals with emotional support like any pet. In particular, the airlines are free to levy charges to transport animals with emotional support, to transport them in traffic jams and not in passenger areas, and to deny them transit altogether.

The transportation division justified this change by claiming that it “will reduce confusion between airlines, passengers, airports and other stakeholders”. Other modes of transport require accommodation only for service animals and not for animals with emotional support. With this argument, however, the agency seems to be ignoring the fact that airlines and people with disabilities can learn more than one rule about their rights and obligations.

The department also defends the removal of animals with emotional support from the service animal’s designation based on public comments. A number of airlines posted comments alleging incidents of animal misconduct, including serious injury to passengers and crew members. Commentators also claimed that passengers sometimes pass off common pets as emotional support animals in order to avoid flight handling charges.

An increase in fraudulent claims outside the flight context has resulted in at least one state making these types of claims criminal. However, the transportation department does not provide any actual data, other than comments from airlines and similar stakeholders to back up their concerns. In an attempt to prevent animal misconduct and false allegations, the department appears not to have considered all alternatives to treating animals with emotional support as pets, such as fines for fraudulent claims.

Finally, the new regime in favor of people with intellectual disabilities removes the distinction between treatment for psychiatric and non-psychiatric service animals. The agency had previously allowed airlines to differentiate between service animals for people with physical disabilities on the one hand and people with mental disabilities on the other. Amid concerns that passengers are falsely claiming to have a mental health service animal in order to avoid additional charges when flying with a pet, airlines may require medical records from passengers claiming to be traveling with a mental health service animal and increased check-ins -Impose requirements.

Recognizing that passengers could also fake a physical disability that required the use of a service animal, the transportation department is now banning airlines from placing additional stress on passengers with mental disabilities. Similarly, the rule also reverses the agency’s previous policy of allowing airlines to physically check-in at the airport for people traveling with a service animal, even if the general public could check-in online.

Despite this apparent gain for people with intellectual disabilities, Prairie Conlon, an administrator of an animal-assisted therapy organization, argued that the rule as a whole still smells like “textbook discrimination” against people with mental disabilities. People with mental and non-physical disabilities are more likely to use animals for emotional support than service animals.

Time will tell if airlines will water down their accommodation policies to the fullest extent of the transportation department’s new rule – an outcome that seems likely given the overwhelming industry support for the new rule amid fraud and safety concerns surrounding animals with emotional support. To avoid possible changes in airline policy, people looking to fly a dog with emotional support may want to consider whether their dog can be trained as a service animal.

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