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Department of Transportation Will Let Airlines Ban Emotional Support Snakes And Rodents

Department of Transportation Will Let Airlines Ban Emotional Support Snakes And Rodents

Should passengers be able to fly with comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, or spiders in the cabin? What if a passenger says they need these animals for emotional support?

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Thursday finalized new guidelines that support the efforts of U.S. airlines to crack down on abuses of the statutes that allow emotional support animals to travel in cabins.

The law has been squarely on the side of those with impairments, emphasizing the duty to provide accommodations to let them take advantage of services like flying just like everyone else. Animals of all kinds have been flying for free in passenger cabins, without having to be crated and without regard for their size.

Airlines have been concerned that any effort to push back on passengers bringing horses, goats, and other animals would create liability under the Air Carrier Access Act and 14 CFR 382. As a general matter once a passenger claimed their companion was an emotional support animal, oversight was limited.

Of course not everyone claiming to need an emotional support animal really needs one. Sometimes it’s about bringing a pet on a plane instead of having to check the furry friend as cargo, or about skirting the airline’s pet in cabin fees. Delta revealed, for instance, that between 2016 and 2018 the number of emotional support animals on their aircraft went up 86% — to 250,000.

What’s more poorly controlled animals have bitten other passengers in the cabin, and plenty of aircraft have been soiled by pets in need of in-flight relief.

However on Thursday the Department of Transportation issued a statement of enforcement priorities.

This continues efforts by DOT and airlines to find a way to comply with the law while placing limits on unnecessary animals in the cabin. Delta announced modest restrictions at the beginning of 2018, requiring passengers to show proof of health or vaccinations 48 hours in advance of travel and sign a document that their animal can behave. United quickly followed weeks later and then in May American went several steps further.

For instance, last year American’s policy started to require:

  • Animals have to fit under seat, at feet, or on lap No one with an emotional support animal can sit in an exit row.
  • No blocking of aisles, occupying a seat or eating from tray tables
  • Must leash and control the animal at all times. Animals who growl, attempt to bit, or lunge at people will be treated as pets “and all pet requirements and applicable fees will apply.” I’m not sure that this will be enforced except in the most egregious cases.
  • 48 hours advance notice although last minute travel can be booked inside this period with an emotional support animal.
  • Must have a form completed by a licensed mental health professional or a letter from the professional dated within a year of travel.The letter has to state there’s “a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and are currently a patient” as well as “[s]how the need for emotional support or psychiatric service animal for air travel and /or activity at your destination” and “[p]rovide proof of their licensing as a mental health professional or medical doctor (including date, type and state of license).”
  • A behavioral guidelines form and an ‘animal sanitation form’ for 8+ hour flights where you have to say the animal won’t need to relieve itself during long haul travel

Once the three largest airlines had acted it was clear the Department of Transportation had shifted its stance in support of their efforts. Indeed a week after American promulgated its policy the Department of Transportation issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to that effect. Now, a little over a year later, the DOT has offered final guidance on its enforcement priorities.

The Department of Transportation has said that airlines can’t categorically refuse to transport many kinds of animals but can “continue to deny transport to snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders” and an airline may refuse to transport any animal that “is too large or too heavy, poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others, or would cause a significant disruption in cabin service.”

Airlines have wanted the DOT to go further – allowing them to limit the total number of emotional support animals on a flight – but the government refused that request.

Here are the new Department of Transportation enforcement guidelines for emotional support animals:

  • Species and breed. Dogs, cats, and miniature horses have to be allowed, and specific dog breeds cannot be per se prohibited. However snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders can explicitly be banned.

  • Number of support animals. Airlines can restrict a passenger to just one emotional support animal (and three total service animals). They cannot limit the total number of service animals on a plane, however.

  • Weight alone cannot be used to deny transporting a service animal.

  • Age Animals too young to have been trained to behave in public can be excluded.

  • Flight length Airlines can require documentation an animal won’t need to relieve itself inflight on journeys over 8 hours (“or that it can do so in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue”).

  • Proof of service animal An airline may ask questions to determine a passenger’s need for the animal.

  • Documentation Airlines can ask for documentation that helps it determine whether the animal is a threat to the health or safety of others.

  • Advance Notice and Check-in Airlines can require passengers to present their documentation at the ticket counter (up to one hour prior to normally required check-in time) and to provide up to 48 hours’ advance notice of travel (although these requirements cannot apply to travel with non-emotional support service animals).

  • Containment DOT hasn’t issued clear guidance on what restrictions can be placed on support animals inside the cabin beyond requiring “tethering and similar means of control[..]” however they recognize “the right of other passengers to enjoy their own foot space”


DOT listened to all of the stakeholders, reviewed the law, and laid out guidelines that will allow airlines to balance their operational needs, the comfort needs of all passengers, while ensuring that restrictions put in place don’t preclude having mental health needs met.

While that may not mean the end of passengers getting bitten by poorly controlled and vicious animals, it allows some controls to be put in place that may reduce the frequency and severity of incidents.

Department of Transportation Will Let Airlines Ban Emotional Support Snakes And Rodents

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