On February 5, 2020, the Department of Transportation (DOT) opened the public comment period for its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) Regarding Traveling by Air with Service Animals.  That comment period officially closed this week, with the proposed rule garnering over 14,000 comments.

While the comment period was open for 60 days, an unusually long period of time for a rulemaking such as this, it did not stop several groups from asking for an extension.  On March 30, 2020, the group “U.S. Support Animals” asked the Department to extend the comment period on the NPRM by an additional 90 days, to July 6, 2020.  The group argued that the public had been too involved in altering their daily lives to combat the COVID-19 epidemic to respond to the NPRM.  Similarly, on April 2, 2020, the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International-North America jointly requested a 30-day extension of the comment period, stating that “the industry is consumed with responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency and that airports need this additional time to provide meaningful and substantive feedback on the Department’s proposed rule.”

Despite the fact that several groups on opposite sides of the issue asked for an extension, the DOT let the April 6, 2020 deadline stand.  The DOT noted that an NPRM such as this normally has a comment period of only 30 days, and that DOT had received comments in a steady stream right up until the deadline.  In fact, of the 14,700 comments posted, nearly 1,000 were received in the final 3 days of the comment period.

For those of you who have not been following the issue, the NPRM proposes several large changes to the way service and support animals are treated for air travel.  First, the definition of service animal under the Air Carrier Access Act 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.  Airlines can also 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.

A review of the 14,700 comments reveals overwhelming support for the new, more restrictive definition of service animals.  There was also very strong support, even among those who claim to have serious allergies, to permitting true service animals to continue to ride on aircraft.

The provisions limiting emotional support animals were more controversial.  While there were a large number people forcefully arguing that any “emotional support” animal should be allowed on an aircraft for no charge, they were substantially outnumbered by those who were tired of riding in, what a number of commenters described as, the “flying zoo.”

Now that the comment period has closed, the Department of Transportation will review the pubic submissions and determine what, if any, revisions to the draft rule are appropriate.  If the Department determines that no changes are necessary, then we can expect to see the final rule in place before the end of the year.

Our prediction . . . no more “flying zoos.”