Airline Crackdown: No, Emotional Support Animals Are Not Service Animals

LEAH PESSO—In the last few years, there has been an increase in reports of unconventional and exotic pets such as peacocks, squirrels, pigs, and ducks flying aboard aircrafts under the guise of emotional support animals. Because airlines charge passengers for transporting pets but are prohibited by law from charging passengers traveling with service animals, passengers have been incentivized to claim that their pets are emotional support animals to avoid the fees. 

The abuse of the system has been fueled by the ease of obtaining documentation for emotional support animals through online websites. In fact, one news reporter demonstrated just how simple the process is. After easily finding a website offering emotional support animal certification, they took a quick quiz, paid a mere $97, and within hours had received official, doctor-approved paperwork via email. The problem became so severe that in December of 2020 the United States Department of Transportation revised the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”). 

Under the revised rule, airlines are only required to allow trained service dogs on planes, clarifying that emotional support animals are no longer considered to be service animals. The ACAA’s definition of a service animal now more closely aligns with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) definition of service animals, defining a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. The new guidelines also require airlines to treat psychiatric service dogs the same as other service animals without requiring additional documentation. Based on this definition, simply providing comfort does not mean that the dog is a psychiatric service dog. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to perform tasks such as alerting the handler before a panic attack occurs or interrupting repetitive or self-harming behaviors. Psychiatric service dogs are commonly used by individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When promulgating the final rule, the Department of Transportation noted several compelling reasons for revising the regulations. Some of the reasons include the increasing number of service animal complaints received from, and on behalf of, passengers with disabilities and by the airlines. But the reasons for revisions do not stop there as disruptions caused by requests to transport unusual species of animals have eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals. Additionally, the reported increase in the incidents of misbehavior by emotional support animals also spurred the revised guidelines. However, the change in law has not deterred some dishonest pet owners. Instead of claiming their dog to be an emotional support animal, they now lie, and call it a service dog.

This behavior can have detrimental effects on individuals who truly need service animals. Many fear that increasingly bad behavior from fake service dogs will lead lawmakers to create more restrictive legislation. Moreover, as airlines try to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate, individuals who actually need service dogs are finding themselves caught in the crossfire. For individuals with disabilities, not only is it essential that they have their service dog at all times but a denial of the service dog or even too probing of questions will violate the individual’s rights and open the airline up to potential lawsuits. Unfortunately, these situations have become even more prevalent because of an increase in the falsification of service dogs not only in the airline context, but also in other places of public accommodation. As an attempt to combat this problem, Florida and many other states have introduced laws that make it a criminal offense to falsify a service animal. 

Airlines and other places of public accommodation attempting to determine the legitimacy of a service dog must be aware of the laws. First, despite the considerable number of websites claiming to provide service dog registries, there is no national service dog registry recognized by the ADA. Currently, the ADA does not provide any official documentation or certification concerning service animals. Thus, an individual cannot be required to provide an identification card or other documentation to prove the legitimacy of the service dog. Nor may an individual be asked to explain the nature of their disability. However, there are two specific questions airlines and other places of public accommodation may ask: (1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability; and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? Ultimately, as laws change more needs to be done to protect the integrity of individuals with disabilities and their service animals, beginning with educating the public on the ramifications of falsifying service dogs.