DOT ruling a victory for flyers with emotional support animals

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Emotional support animals
Photo Credit: 5 Second Studio/Shutterstock

The Department of Transportation will continue to enforce regulations requiring that airlines allow passengers to bring dogs, cats and miniature horses onto planes for emotional support. The department also reasserted that airlines cannot prohibit specific breeds of from being used as emotional support animals, including pit bulls. 

The DOT issued its "Final Statement of Enforcement Policies Regarding Service Animals on Flights" Thursday, concluding a public process it initiated in May 2018 after airlines complained that many flyers were abusing the rules and evading pet carrier fees by falsely claiming they needed their pets for emotional support.

The trade group Airlines for America (A4A) and Delta (which isn't in A4A) have lobbied the DOT to adopt a Department of Justice definition that holds that a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to perform a task for an individual with a disability. The definition includes no provision for emotional support animals, or for cats and other species. 

The DOT instead determined that it will direct enforcement efforts toward ensuring that airlines allow passengers to travel with one dog, cat or miniature horse for emotional support, if needed. The department also stated that it views a limitation on breed to not be allowed under its service animal regulation. 

Last June, Delta announced a ban on emotional support pit bulls. 

That's not the only announced Delta policy that the DOT made clear does not meet muster. The department also said that airlines cannot automatically ban emotional support animals on flights longer than eight hours, contravening a policy Delta announced last December. Carriers can, however, require passengers to provide documentation that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight or that it can do so in a way that does not create a sanitation issue. 

Still, not every enforcement decision the DOT announced Thursday was a defeat for airlines. The department upheld a Delta policy forbidding emotional support animals younger than four months. And notably, the DOT said it does not intend to take action against an airline for asking users of any type of service animal to present documentation related to the service animal's vaccination, training or behavior. Airlines began implementing such requirements in March 2018. 

In a statement Thursday, A4A applauded that particular DOT enforcement decision.

"The availability of fraudulent [emotional support animal] credentials online has enabled people who are not truly in need of animal assistance to abuse the rules and evade airline policies regarding animals in the cabin," the trade group said.  "With over a million passengers bringing [emotional support animals] on flights last year, airlines and airports saw a sharp increase in incidents such as biting and mauling by untrained animals. The DOT's guidance is an important step toward addressing this growing problem and ensuring a safer and healthier travel experience for all."

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