One of the most controversial developments in air travel is the proliferation of service and support animals.  While history proves that dogs can perform extremely valuable services to disabled people, the value of support peacocks, goldfish, and bearded dragons are more questionable.  As a result, the Department of Transportation is finally taking a hard look at the rules surrounding support animals.

A new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, entitled “Traveling by Air with Service Animals,” was published in the Federal Register last week and will remain open for public comment until April 6, 2020.  Needless to say, this is a topic that resonates, both for good and bad, with the public.  In the first week, the NPRM has already garnered in excess of 13,000 comments.

While the airline industry has been requesting clarification on these issues for quite a while, the current rulemaking actually comes at the request of Congress, which directed the FAA to develop standards for service and emotional support animals in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018.

The biggest change from the NPRM is to the definition of service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act.  A service animal would be limited to a dog that is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, intellectual, or other mental disability.”  This definition is similar to the one used by the Department of Justice in the regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In addition, emotional support animals would no longer be classified as service animals and airlines would be permitted to treat them as pets.

The proposed regulation also permits airlines to require disabled persons traveling with a service animal to complete DOT forms “attesting to the animals good behavior,” health, and that the animal can control its ability to “relieve itself” on a long flight.  The NPRM also contains requirements to permit the safe transport of large service animals in the cabin and allow airlines to limit the number of service animals on any given flight.  The rule estimates that permitting airlines to treat emotional support animals as pets will allow the industry to collect an additional $75,000,000 in revenues for transporting these animals.

Assuming the new rules are adopted, regulations in the US will be largely harmonized with the regulations in other countries.  The United States is somewhat unique in its current broad recognition and protection of emotional support animals.  Most countries, treat such animals as pets and require them to be transported for a fee regardless of the emotional support they might provide.  For example, the UK generally prohibits the a carriage of animals in the cabin, with the exception of “recognized assistance dogs.”  While some European airlines permit emotional support dogs on the aircraft, they do not recognize the panoply of exotic “support” animals we have seen in the US.

The final rule is expected to be out before the end of the year.