WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation on Tuesday released new guidance that allows airlines the ability to recognize emotional support dogs as pets rather than service animals, meaning carriers will be able to ban emotional support animals from their flights. 

What You Need To Know

  • The Department of Transportation on Tuesday released new guidance for airlines on allowing service and emotional support animals on flights

  • Under the new rule, only dogs can be service animals; emotional support animals can be recognized as pets by airline carriers

  • Airlines may also now limit service animals to two per passenger on any given flight

  • The rule aims to settle years of tension between airlines and passengers who bring their pets on board for free by saying they need them for emotional support

The government’s proposal also decided that when it comes to air travel, only dogs can be service animals.

The new rule defines a service animal as one “trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.” Airlines may also now limit service animals to two per passenger on any given flight. 

The rule goes into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Emotional support animals were previously included under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) under the umbrella of service animals, meaning airlines could not refuse a customer with an emotional support animal, which was defined as “any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” 

Airlines could, however, request documentation of a mental or emotional disability requiring the passenger to fly with an emotional support animal. 

Now, those guidelines have been extended to service animals. While airlines were previously only required to observe the behavior of a service animal or believe the “credible verbal assurances of an individual with a disability using the animal,” the DOT’s new rule allows airlines to complete and submit a form “attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior” ahead of the flight. 

The change comes after the DOT published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in February, which sought to “propose a rule that would ensure passengers with disabilities can continue traveling with service animals in air transportation while also reducing the likelihood that there would be safety or health issues at the airport or onboard aircraft.” 

The department received over 15,000 comments on the proposed rule — many of which were from disability rights activist organizations, airlines, airports, transportation worker associations, and animal health and training organizations. 

Most of the comments from airlines claimed passengers abused the previous, less stringent rule to bring a menagerie of animals on board including cats, turtles, pigs, and, in one case, a peacock.

The new rule will likely force those passengers to check their animals into the cargo hold — for a fee — or leave them at home.

But advocacy groups had the opposite reaction, saying the department’s ruling is disproportionate to the problem. 

“We acknowledge that some people have misrepresented themselves and their pets as people with disabilities with service or emotional support animals. But it is rare," Curt Decker, president of the National Disability Rights Action Network, said in a statement of the proposed rule. "These proposals are a vast overreaction to an uncommon problem."

It is unclear how major airlines will respond to the latest rule, but at least two are already taking the DOT's ruling under advisement. Most already allow passengers to fly with at least one emotional support animal or pet, although the definitions and requirements for said animals differ widely based on carrier. 

American Airlines, which had submitted a comment during the proposal phase commending the DOT for proposing to limit the definition of "service animals," commended the finalized rule in a statment to Spectrum News. 

"On behalf of our team members who focus each and every day on providing a safe, healthy, and enjoyable travel experience to our customers, we commend Secretary Elaine Chao and the Department of Transportation for taking seriously the challenges associated with emotional support animals and air travel," the statement read in part. "This new rule reflects a respect for individuals with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share, while providing clear and practical guidelines that will eliminate the abuse of the system that has been a source of concern for our team members and customers." 

"We look forward to the improved experience we’ll be able to deliver to our customers, especially those with legitimate service animals, as a result," the statement concluded. It did not clarify how or when the airline will update its own guidance relating to service or support animals.

American Airlines previously allowed both fully trained emotional support and service animals on board free of charge, should they meet the requirements; emotional support and psychiatric service animals require additional documentation to be approved ahead of the flight. 

The emotional support animal must be four months or older, be clean and well-behaved, and must be able to fit under a seat for the duration of the flight, among other requirements. Should the animal not meet these standards, passengers are still able to fly with their animal as a pet for a charge of $125 per kennel on most domestic flights. 

American Airlines has temporarily halted their checked pet service amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Delta has similar regulations, requiring “passengers traveling with emotional support or psychiatric service animals must complete and submit the required paperwork at least 48 hours before a flight.” Service and support animals fly for free on the airline, but customers are limited to a maximum of one emotional support animal. The airline does not accept pit-bull type dogs as service or support animals.

Delta told Spectrum News they are "currently reviewing the new rule and will continue to work with Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability to implement it in a manner that improves the experience for all our customers," adding there are no changes to Delta's current service and support animal policies at this time.

“Safety is our core value and we applaud the Department of Transportation (DOT) for acknowledging the concerns that Delta and many other stakeholders have repeatedly raised and for finalizing the new service animal rule," the statement read in part. "This rule will allow airlines to put safety first for all of our customers and employees, while protecting the rights of customers who have disabilities and need to travel with trained service animals."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.