The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), with its stringent rules on accommodating service dogs in public places without requiring proof of disability, doesn't apply on airplanes. But the less-known Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments. That means they can bring their service animals with them on planes for free. This is an important right for people with disabilities who need their service dogs to travel like anyone else.
However, in the wake of disruptions caused by untrained emotional support animals on planes and passengers' attempts to fly with unusual species, the U.S. Department of Transportation amended the ACAA regulations to allow airlines to impose restrictions on traveling with some types of service animals. Read on for details.
Previously, airlines were required to allow most species of assistance animals—including pigs, monkeys, and miniature horses—with some exceptions, such as when they posed a direct threat to health and safety. As of January 10, 2021, a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rule amended the ACAA regulations to define a service animal as a dog (regardless of breed or type) that is individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
Airlines may not refuse to allow a service animal based on its breed or physical type, but they may require that the dog fit on the handler's lap or within the handler's foot space on the plane. They may also require that service dogs be harnessed or leashed on the plane and in the airport. (14 C.F.R. § 382.117, 85 Fed. Reg. 79742 (2020).)
Under the amended regulations, airlines may require passengers traveling with service dogs to submit a completed form with information and assurances about the animal's training, health, and good behavior. Also, if any segment of the flight is scheduled to take at least eight hours, the passenger may need to provide documentation that the service animal won't need to relieve itself on the plane or can do so in a way that doesn't create a health or sanitation problem.
The DOT rule also prohibits airlines from treating psychiatric service animals any differently than other service animals (such as by requiring additional documentation from a mental health professional, as the regulations previously allowed). (14 C.F.R. § 382.117, 85 Fed. Reg. 79742 (2020).)
Under the previous regulations, travelers could bring untrained emotional support animals on planes as long as they provided documentation from a mental health professional that they needed the animal's presence to fly. Because these animals don't need any special training, the lax requirements led to conflicts on flights, including attacks on other passengers or trained service animals.
In response to all the complaints, the amended regulations no longer require airlines to recognize emotional support animals as service animals. That means that anyone who wants to bring an emotional support animal on a plane may have to comply with the individual airline's restrictions—and extra fees—for flying with pets.
People with disabilities who are flying with trained service dogs may have to submit the DOT forms (discussed above) up to 48 hours in advance of the travel date if a reservation was made before then. Otherwise, the passengers may submit the forms at the gate before boarding. Airlines may not require that people traveling with service dogs check in physically at the airport (rather than using online check-in).