New guidance on travel with service animals is a step forward, but more can be done
© Greg Nash

Secretary of Transportation Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoDemocratic chairman presses Transportation secretary over transparency in Boeing 737 Max probe Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Democratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials MORE took an important step last week in protecting the rights of airline customers and trained service animals that accompany them when they travel. This is good news, and we thank Secretary Chao for addressing this important issue. Passengers, crews and legitimate service animals are all negatively impacted by animals that are not trained for service or for the stresses of travel. This action by Secretary Chao and the Department of Transportation (DOT) will help airlines provide a better and more enjoyable journey for all passengers.

American Airlines and My Blind Spot have been working together for years to better care for people of all abilities during their travels. For many, service animals are integral to their journey, which is why we’ve collaborated to advance policies to support passengers in a way that keeps them and their service animal companions ― as well as airline team members — safe, healthy and content during flight.

When animals travel in service, and not as pets, they typically fall into two categories: service animals and emotional support animals. A service animal is trained to perform functions to assist a person with a disability, while an emotional support animal may provide a comfort to passenger but is not required to be formally trained.

Unfortunately, emotional support animals that are not trained pose a number of risks to the health and safety of those on board an airplane. Too often, untrained animals misbehave, show aggression, run loose, or otherwise cause disruptions during flight. This type of behavior undermines the credibility of trained, working service animals and can infringe on the rights of passengers who depend on those legitimate service animals.

In 2018, U.S. airlines flew almost a million emotional support animals in the cabin. In the last two years, American Airlines has seen a nearly 50 percent increase in the number of emotional support animals, and over the last three years, American carried three times as many emotional support animals than trained service animals.

This significant uptick in the number of emotional support animals onboard intensified the need for clear-cut and consistent rules about their travel, and the DOT’s clarifications deliver on this need.

By issuing guidance that will be in place until it changes the regulations that govern and define service animals, the DOT has recognized the need for change, as well as the need to deter the fraudulent use of animals not qualified as service animals. The guidance affirms DOT’s commitment to permitting airlines to enact reasonable policies to increase safety, such as permitting airlines to require documentation about an animal’s vaccination, training, and behavior. The guidance also permits airlines to limit the number of emotional support animals to one per passenger, and it permits carriers to impose reasonable policies requiring people to maintain control over such animals.

American welcomes these improvements, and we appreciate Secretary Chao for taking action on an issue that has increasingly impacted customers and team members. Regulatory leadership on emotional support animals was long overdue, and the DOT guidance will ensure that more people have more enjoyable journeys when they choose to travel by air.

Moving forward, the next positive step that DOT could take is to change the regulation and adopt the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of “service animal,” which is: “Dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” This would include psychiatric service dogs. In a recent survey of American Airlines passengers, nearly 60 percent of respondents expressed that only trained service dogs as defined by the ADA should be permitted to fly as service animals. By considering only highly trained working dogs as service animals, airline travel will be safer because untrained animals could no longer be passed off as support animals.

Our priority is always to care for customers and team members during their journeys, and we look forward to an ultimate outcome that will help ensure a safe, healthy, and enjoyable travel experience for all who fly.

Suzanne Boda is a Senior Vice President at American Airlines and Albert Rizzi is the founder of My Blind Spot, a disabilities advocacy group.