New Restrictions for Flying with Service Animals

Changes are positive and necessary
By Beth Finke, December 2020, Updated January 2021
Courtesy of Guide Dogs for the Blind
Thousands of Americans who are blind or visually impaired rely upon guide dogs (aka Seeing Eye dogs or service dogs), and have long faced significant challenges from untrained emotional support animals when traveling by air. New regulations that reduce ambiguity should improve things for them.

The U.S. DOT, after receiving over 15,000 comments, changed the rules governing service animals on planes. Those new rules:

• Define a service animal as being a dog (not another species) who has been individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.
• No longer consider an emotional support animal to be a service animal.
• Require that psychiatric service animals be treated the same as other service animals.
• Allow carriers to require forms to attest to service animal’s health, training and behavior.
• Allow carriers to require that those forms be submitted 48 hours before the flight.
• Reiterate that carriers cannot prohibit a service animal based on breed (a previous rule that will not change).

A small dog yipped and lunged at my Seeing Eye dog Whitney as we checked in for a flight at Chicago’s Midway Airport late last year. No one got hurt, but it was alarming. When we got to the gate, that same small dog barked and lunged at Whitney again.

Just our luck: the yippy dog and his owner were going to be on our flight. My husband Mike was with us, and when he told me that the dog who’d lunged at Whitney was wearing a vest that said “Service Dog in Training,” I asked the owner the two questions federal law allows business owners to ask people claiming their dogs are service dogs: “Is that a service dog?” and “What tasks or work does your dog perform for you?”


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The owner answered “yes” to the first question, then told me the dog keeps her calm and prevents her from getting panic attacks. Gee, I thought. Thanks to that encounter at check-in, my Seeing Eye dog Whitney might need an emotional support dog of her own now.

Another woman at the gate had a smallish dog on a leash. That dog also had a vest on that said “Service Dog,” and when Southwest announced that people with disabilities could preboard, both women rushed to the front of the line to grab the bulkhead seats.

I sat in the eighth row, window seat. Whitney, a 60-pound yellow Lab/Golden Retriever cross, squeezed in, backed her bottom under the seat in front of me, and placed her head on my feet. No complaints. She didn’t make a peep during the entire flight.

Once we landed, I waited for the two dogs in the bulkhead seats to leave before giving Whitney the “Forward!” command. And then? My Seeing Eye dog calmly led me off the plane.

Thousands of Americans who are blind or visually impaired use guide dogs. I trained with my first Seeing Eye dog, a black Labrador named Pandora, in 1991, 30 years ago. Whitney, my fourth guide dog, is 11 years old and retired in December last year. This past January I returned to the Seeing Eye in New Jersey to train with my fifth Seeing Eye dog. My January flight back home from Newark to O’Hare with Luna, a spunky two-year-old black Labrador, is the only time I’ve flown with her so far. My Seeing Eye dogs and I usually take about 20 flights a year to give presentations and speak at conferences. (Covid-19 has kept us close to home this year.)

In light of the challenges people working with service dogs face during air travel, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) got to work amending and clarifying its regulations implementing the Air Carrier Access Act. DOT issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) and sought out comments from the public on these specific issues:

1. Whether psychiatric service animals should be treated similarly to other service animals.

2. Whether there should be a distinction between emotional support animals and other service animals.

3. Whether emotional support animals should be required to travel in pet carriers for the duration of the flight.

4. Whether the species of service animals and emotional support animals that airlines are required to transport should be limited.

5. Whether the number of service animals/emotional support animals should be limited per passenger.

6. Whether an attestation should be required from all service animal and emotional support animal users that their animal has been trained to behave in a public setting.

7. Whether service animals and emotional support animals should be harnessed, leashed or otherwise tethered.

8. Whether there are safety concerns with transporting large service animals, and if so, how to address them.

9. Whether airlines should be prohibited from requiring a veterinary health form or immunization record from service-animal users without an individualized assessment that the animal would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others or would cause a significant disruption in the aircraft cabin.

Interested parties were encouraged to submit comments online, by fax or by mail. I was one of those interested parties, and thanks to assistive technology and speech software, I was able to fill out a form online.

author beth finke
Beth Finke and Luna (the author's fifth seeing eye dog)

I’ve long thought that service animals should be defined as dogs who (a) are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability and (b) have had public-access training as well. “Animals who do not meet both those criteria should be designated as a separate category from service dogs,” I said in my form, adding my story about the lunging dog at Midway Airport in the comments section. “The more people allowed to bring unqualified animals on board, the more encounters we’ll have with handlers who don’t control those animals.”

Existing guidelines have long allowed airlines to refuse to transport service animals who engage in disruptive or threatening behavior, including excessive barking, biting, growling and jumping. On December 2, DOT said it had rewritten the rules to make them clearer, adding that passengers bringing unqualified animals on board “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals.” The new rules take effect in 30 days.

DOT also mentioned that increasing numbers of people are “fraudulently representing their pets as service animals,” acknowledging a rise in bad behavior.

What a privilege it was to participate in the advanced rulemaking process on an issue so important to me and to thousands of others who are blind and travel with qualified service dogs. Now, when it comes to air travel, only dogs can be service animals. Companions used for emotional support don’t count, and I see (ahem) this as good news.

I thank the Department of Transportation for listening. Now, once Covid-19 vaccines come through, Luna and I can feel confident about returning safely to our lives as regular air travelers.

Photo courtesy of Guide Dogs for the Blind

Beth Finke is the author of Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh award for children’s literature. Her most recent book is Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.

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