Service animals come in all shapes and sizes; from dogs and cats, to monkeys, miniature horses, and even more exotic species. For example, Daniel Green has a service snake that predicts his epileptic seizures, while Sarah Sevick has a service ferret that helps calm her when she has a panic attack. And then of course there’s the Washington state woman who keeps a pot bellied pig as her emotional support animal. And although these non-traditional service animals are somewhat controversial; some are guaranteed accommodations under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), while others are prohibited from flying. Here’s the scoop on what animals make the cut and what documentation is required; plus an update on changes in the law that effect service and emotional support animals on the ground.
The ACAA and Service Animals
The ACAA requires all US airlines to allow any qualified person with a disability to be accompanied by a service animal. The airlines are not required to accept unusual or exotic service animals if they are too large or heavy to be carried safely; however, in practice most will accept miniature horses. They are also not required to accept any animal that would pose a direct threat to passenger safety, nor are they ever required to accept snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents or spiders. Foreign air carriers (on flights to and from the US) are only required to accept dogs as service animals.
Passengers with service animals are guaranteed bulkhead seating under the ACAA; however they are permitted to sit anywhere on the aircraft, except the emergency exit rows. The service animal must not obstruct the aisle or other areas that must remain clear under FAA safety rules. If this is a problem, the airline must allow the passenger to move to another seat where the animal can be accommodated.
Advance notice is not required for travel with a service animal; however it’s always a good idea to check with the airline if you’re traveling with a miniature horse or a monkey. And if the flight is expected to last longer than eight hours, you’ll need to give the airline 48-hours notice. On these flights, airlines also require documentation that the animal will not need to relieve itself in-flight, or that it can relieve itself in a way that will not create a health or sanitation issue.
Last but not least, service animals must behave appropriately aboard the aircraft, which is usually not an issue for properly trained service animals. It was however an issue for one flying pig, who reportedly ran through the aircraft, squealed loudly and then defecated on the jetway. Presumably, airline employees were not aware of porky’s behavioral problems when they gave him the OK to fly.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are another matter altogether. These animals, which are needed by some people with mental disabilities, are the source of great controversy. Additionally, some passengers try to pass off their pets as emotional support animals, in order to dodge the hefty airline pet transport charges. Which is why in 2009, that the Department of Transportation came up with some strict guidelines for the transport of emotional support animals in the amended ACAA.
Under these regulations, US air carriers are required to carry emotional support or psychiatric service animals under the following circumstances.
- The passenger must present a letter from a mental health professional stating that the passenger has a mental health related disability.
- The letter must also state that because of that disability the passenger must travel with an emotional support animal.
- The letter must be less than a year old.
- The letter must be from a mental health professional currently treating the patient.
- The passenger must give the airline 48-hours notice.
Emotional support animals also have the same species and size restrictions as service animals. Additionally, these requirements only apply to flights on US-based carriers. Under the ACAA, foreign airlines are never required to accept emotional support animals.
On the Ground
It’s also important to note the differences between air travel and ground accommodations, regarding the treatment of service and emotional support animals. While air travel is covered under the ACAA, ground accommodations fall under the jurisdiction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And just last year new ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) were released — guidelines that exclude emotional support animals from protection under the ADA. These new regulations, which go into effect on March 15, 2011, also further clarify the definition of a service animal.
Under the updated ADAAG, the DOJ limits the definition of a service animal to any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Additionally it excludes other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, except for miniature horses.
Furthermore, the regulations totally exclude emotional support animals from protection under the ADA. In regards to the definition of a service animal, the Department of Justice says, “The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”
So although you can fly with a properly documented emotional support cat; as of March 15, 2011 hotels, restaurants and attractions on the ground won’t be required to accommodate you. Just one more reason that it pays to learn the law before you hit the road.