Over the years, there has been a lot of news stories about people traveling (or seeking to travel) with interesting animals. There was the incident involving a “beloved pet hamster” that was flushed down a toilet after Sprit Airlines refused to let a passenger bring the pet on a flight as an emotional support animal.  There was the “emotional support peacock” that was barred from a United Airlines flight. The “emotional support pig” kicked off a US Airways flight for being disruptive. The list goes on and on. The reason for the long list is the fact that the Department of Transportation allowed for these types of animals to accompany passengers on flights.

On December 2, 2020, however, the Department of Transportation announced that it will revise its rules around flying with emotional support animals and will no longer deem them service animals, which, by law, are allowed to fly with passengers on commercial flights. The new Air Carrier Access Act will define a service animal, which is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s definition, as “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” As such, this requirement means more than strapping a “service” vest on good boy Sparky and attempting to pass him off as a covered service animal.

The Department of Transportation is clear that it no longer considers emotional support animals to be service pets unless they meet the specific definition set forth above, which will allow airlines to ban them if they so choose. Individual airlines are free to define their own policies regarding animals on flights, although those policies must be in line with the Department of Transportation rules.

Notably, in the employment law context, and specifically when pets are allowed in the workplace, there is a very big difference between service animals, which are limited under the Americans with Disabilities Act to dogs and miniature ponies (no, that is not a typo), and emotional support animals, which most people tend to think are one and the same.

The new rules will go into effect 30 days after the final ruling is published in the Federal Register.  That date has not yet been announced.

About the Author:

Sara H. Jodka (Member, Columbus) is a member of the firm’s Labor and Employment Department. For more information, contact her at 614-744-2943 or via email at sjodka@dickinsonwright.com.