The US Department of Transportation (DOT) on Aug. 8 issued a final policy statement regarding the transport of emotional support animals (ESA) aboard commercial aircraft cabins.

While the guidance itself is not legally binding, it will form the basis of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that DOT plans to publish later in 2019.

The Department issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in May 2018 and received approximately 4,500 comments from the public in response.

The policies are intended to clear up confusion stemming from a surge in the number of passengers traveling with ESAs in recent years, fueled in large-part by fraudulent use of the animals. The policies apply to ESAs and psychiatric support animals (PSA), but not to trained service animals that provide aid to passengers with physical impairments.

“Over the past few years, the number of service animals has gone up very significantly, and unfortunately that has led to a number of incidents that we’ve all seen, including very severe biting incidents in which children have been permanently scarred in terrible ways,” a DOT official told reporters on an Aug. 8 conference call.

“We are looking here to try to balance the interests of everyone, to clarify the rules and to help ensure that individuals with disabilities have access, while at the same time our rules are helping to ensure the safety of all passengers,” the official added.

DOT said in its final policy statement that its Enforcement Office will focus enforcement efforts on “clear violations ... that have the potential to adversely impact the largest number of individuals” moving forward.

The Department also does not intend to take action against carriers for asking passengers to provide documentation related to service animal vaccinations, training or behavior.

Airlines will be permitted to require passengers traveling with ESAs and PSAs to check-in at the airport lobby, rather than the sterile area of the airport. They will also be able to require passengers to provide up to 48 hours advance notice when traveling with the animals, a policy that had been strongly opposed by disability rights activists.

Most major US airlines issued their own policies in 2018 in response to the large uptick of service animals. Transitioning to the new guidelines will require carriers to adjust those policies. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, for example, will no longer be able to enforce a ban on pitbulls, while Chicago-based United Airlines will have to stop barring support animals on long flights. 

“The availability of fraudulent ESA 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,” Airlines for America (A4A) spokesman Carter Yang said in an emailed statement. “The DOT’s guidance is an important step toward addressing this growing problem and ensuring a safer and healthier travel experience for all.”

Ben Goldstein, ben.goldstein@aviationweek.com