On December 2, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) announced its final rule revising its Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”) regulation on the transportation of service animals by air.[1] The final rule constitutes significant changes to the ACAA regulations regarding the transportation of service animals. Significantly, the final rule restricts the types of service animals allowed on U.S. flights to dogs and frees airlines from having to accommodate a variety of emotional support animals. However, the rule does not bar emotional support animals from traveling in passenger cabins.

Prior to the issuance of the final rule, the DOT published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking titled “Traveling by Air with Service Animals” on May 23, 2018. On February 5, 2020, the DOT issued a Notice of a Proposed Rulemaking providing notice of a proposed rule amending its ACAA regulation on the transportation of service animals by air.[2] The DOT then received more than 15,000 comments on the proposed rule before announcing the final rule on December 2, 2020.

According to the DOT, the notice of the proposed rule and the final rule was prompted by a number of compelling needs to revise the ACAA regulations:

  1. the increasing number of service animal complaints received from, and on behalf of, passengers with disabilities by the DOT and by airlines;
  2. the inconsistent definitions among Federal agencies of what constitutes a “service animal”;
  3. the disruptions caused by requests to transport unusual species of animals onboard aircraft, which has eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals;
  4. the increasing frequency of incidents of travelers fraudulently representing their pets as service animals; and
  5. the reported increase in the incidents of misbehavior by emotional support animals.

In addition, the DOT stated that it received multiple requests for the DOT to regulate in this area.

The DOT stated that it was amending its regulations in response to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (the FAA Act) which required the DOT to conduct a rulemaking proceeding on the definition of the term “service animal” and to develop minimum standards for what is required for service and emotional support animals. Congress also required the DOT to consider whether it should align DOT’s ACAA definition of a service animal with the service animal definition established by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in its rule implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In response, the DOT chose to revise its service animal definition under the ACAA to be more closely aligned with DOJ’s service animal definition under the ADA, although the substantive requirements in DOT’s ACAA service animals rule differ from DOJ’s requirements for service animals under the ADA in a number of respects.

The final rule will be effective 30 days after it is published in the Federal Register.  The new rule is summarized in the table below, which is reprinted from a summary within the final rule.

The lengthy final rule provides much needed guidance to U.S. airlines and the general flying public on the transportation of service animals by air. Accordingly, the final rule is expected to have a significant impact on U.S. airlines and their policies regarding the transportation of service animals.

[1] https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/service-animal-final-rule

[2] https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/notice-proposed-rulemaking-traveling-air-service-animals