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  • Writer's pictureJenny Stamm

Planes and How Service Dogs Will Be Affected

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has finalized their new, updated rules regarding Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Service Animals. I wrote about the proposed changes back in April 2020 with my comments. Now that the new rules have been finalized, I want to give my thoughts again. I am happy about a couple of things, annoyed about a couple of things, and truly pissed off about one thing. It’s important to note that the DOT guidelines are the strictest that airlines can set their policies as, though there is room for airlines to have less strict guidelines, if they so choose.

Let’s start with the good part of the new rules. The DOT has aligned their definition of service dogs to basically the same one that the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) uses. This means that all types of service dogs, including psychiatric and autism dogs, will now be treated the same. The DOT also declared that service dogs cannot be banned based on breed. These are great improvements as, in the past, psychiatric service dogs (PSDs, which autism dogs were sometimes considered part of and sometimes not) were treated the same as ESAs instead of service dogs.

This leads to one of the first problems with the new rules: “service animals” have been limited strictly to dogs. In the US, both dogs and miniature horses (generally trained for guide or heavy mobility tasks) are defined as service animals. The DOT has now allowed airlines to restrict travel to (service) dogs alone.

Along those lines, this new ruling allows airlines to treat ESAs as pets, with the same restrictions and fees as pets. While unwanted, this is understandable as many people were bringing unsuitable animals onto planes as ESAs: aggressive dogs, squirrels, and more. The number of ESAs on airlines skyrocketed over the last couple of years, so the DOT has determined that airlines can now choose to treat ESAs as pets.

One of the most (smaller) annoying things is that they have now implemented a form that all service dog handlers must fill out prior to flying. In the past, service dogs (that were not PSDs) were not allowed to be questioned beyond the two standard questions. They also allow airlines to require this form 48 hours prior to a flight. This is an extra step that the average person does not have to fill out, as well as restricting the ability for people with service dogs to take spontaneous trips, as many people like to do.

However, the DOT has restricted this form to the one that they have created, which is one page document that is basically a checklist (with some information, such as vet’s name) with the handler’s signature at the end. This means that no airline can create a more complicated form and that no airline can require something like a trainer’s or vet’s signature on the form, which could be more restrictive for monetary reasons.

So, the airlines want to restrict people from faking service dogs and, with that in mind, the DOT did a decent job for that restriction. It does still restrict those with service dogs more than they should, but it’s an understandable restriction that doesn’t cause too much hassle.

The thing that will cause great hassle and distress to many service dog users is the DOT’s restriction of service dog size. The new rules allow airlines to restrict service dogs to those that can fit in their handler’s lap or in the space at their feet. The most common service dog breeds (labs, goldens, poodles, and collies) are generally too big for this, even with the training they receive to tuck themselves into a tight ball. This also is impossible for some breeds, like the St. Bernard or Great Dane, which are often used for heavier mobility needs.

The DOT proposes one of three options for any service dog that is too big for their recommendations: if there is space available, move other passengers on the plane around so that there is an empty seat next to the service dog partner; if there is no space on that flight to get an empty seat, the partner can either choose to go on a later flight that does have the space or to put their service dog, for free, in cargo for the flight. I feel like I really don’t have to explain why these are absolutely terrible solutions, but I will anyway.

First, let me speak to the absolute absurdity of putting a service dog in cargo… especially when they have no crate to transport the service dog in! First off, someone traveling with a service dog is not going to bring a crate with them because service dogs generally go everywhere with their partner. Let’s say that the airlines will provide a crate, then. They would need to have crates on hand at every airport across the US as well as clean them after each flight is done.

A dog can’t be placed loose in the cargo hold. They will be injured by other luggage and even the best behaved dog would be excused from having an accident in that environment. Also, cargo holds are neither pressure-controlled nor are they ventilated. Many animals transported in cargo holds, even when properly contained and drugged (so they don’t struggle and injure themselves), are permanently injured. Service dogs are worth tens of thousands of dollars and putting them in such a compromising position is not acceptable.

So we have to assume that the DOT put in that “option” as a way to say that they offered other ways, but not as an actual, viable option. That means that larger dogs require getting an empty seat next to them on every single flight they ever take. Every single flight nowadays is overbooked on purpose by the airlines. This means that there is a very, very small chance that an empty seat will exist on any flight, let alone multiple flights if the service dog partner has connecting flights. Waiting for a later flight will not help the situation.

This means that any service dog partner who has a slightly larger dog (which includes a large percentage of service dog partners) will need to either buy a second seat for themselves (which can be excessively expensive) or they simply can’t fly anywhere within the US.

While the rest of these provisions are at least doable, this last restriction is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, the DOT will make these changes effective 30 days after Dec. 2, 2020 (the day they posted the news of the decided changes) and there does not seem to be much we can do about it except telling them over and over ago, as loudly as we can, that this last “option” is not viable and needs to be changed.

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