From now on, the airplanes could look a little less crowded, and not only because of the free center seats and other COVID-19 protocols. A new regulation affects four-legged passengers – and their owners. This week, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) released its final decision regarding the carriage of animals for emotional support on airplanes.
The new rule now recognizes animals for emotional support as pets and no longer as service animals. The U.S. Department of Transportation now defines a service animal as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to perform work or tasks for the benefit of a qualified person with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.
What does this mean? And what is the difference between a service animal and an animal with emotional support? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not define the two as the same thing. Emotional support, therapy, comfort or companion animals are animals that provide exactly what the ADA’s requirements for service animals state in the presence of their owner, while service animals are trained for a specific task or work.
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The new regulation also limits the number of service animals that passengers can take on board an aircraft to two service animals. The ADA explains that some people need more than one service animal for different tasks – as explained on their website, a person sometimes needs two dogs for the same task, e.g. to support stability while walking.
CetraPet, a tele-health platform that offers animal letters for emotional support, says that this decision is a step in the wrong direction for those who need their animals to relieve emotional distress.
“Completely abandoning animals with emotional support is a quick, cheap solution that ignores those who really need the treatment and uses it appropriately,” CetraPet said in a statement on Wednesday. “The Ministry of Transport has preferred the easy and harmful way to the right one.
Animals with emotional support can go beyond a domestic dog. In 2000, US Airways rejected a 300-pound pig with emotional support that was defecating on the plane. In 2018, United Airlines had to crack down on its policy regarding animals with emotional support after a passenger boarded a plane with a peacock with emotional support. After proper documentation was provided by a mental health specialist – which was normally required – these animals were allowed onboard under the Air Carrier Access Act.
The U.S. Department of Transportation states that the new regulations will help ensure the safety of passengers and crew members by allowing airlines to require that service animals be harnessed or tethered in any way on board an aircraft.
“We understand that there have been incidents that have emotionally discredited the animals and the service they provide, but such situations could be prevented by increased regulation,” CetraPet said in its statement. “We think that the emotional support of peacocks is also ridiculous.
In recent years, the demand for this kind of support has increased. In 2019, the New York Times reported that the National Service Animal Registry, a for-profit company that registers pets for services and emotional support, had only 2,400 animals on its registry for services and emotional support. As of December 3, 214,834 animals were registered through their website.
The new rules of the U.S. Department of Transportation will take effect 30 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register.