Thousands of Americans who are blind or visually impaired rely on guide dogs (also known as seeing eye dogs or assistance dogs) and have long faced significant challenges from untrained animals for emotional support when traveling by air. New rules that reduce ambiguity should improve the situation for them.
After receiving over 15,000 comments, the US DOT changed the rules for service animals on airplanes. These new rules:
• Define a service animal as a dog (no other species) that has been individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.
• Stop viewing an animal as a service animal for emotional support.
• Demand that psychiatric service animals be treated the same way as other service animals.
• Allow carriers to request forms to certify animal health, training, and behavior.
• Allow airlines to submit these forms 48 hours before the flight.
• Repeat that shippers cannot ban a pedigree (an earlier rule that won’t change).
A small dog gasped and pounced on my seeing eye dog Whitney as we checked in for a flight at Midway Airport in Chicago late last year. Nobody was hurt, but it was alarming. When we got to the gate, the same little dog barked and pounced on Whitney again.
Just our luck: the yippy dog and his owner would be on our flight. My husband Mike was with us, and when he told me that the dog who pounced on Whitney was wearing a vest that said “Service Dog in Training,” I asked the owner the two questions federal law gives business owners allowed to ask people making claims. Your dogs are service dogs: “Is that a service dog?” and “What tasks or jobs does your dog do for you?”
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The owner answered “yes” to the first question and then told me that the dog is keeping her calm and preventing her from having panic attacks. Gee, I thought. Thanks to that check-in encounter, my seeing eye dog Whitney could now use his own emotional support dog.
Another woman at the gate had a small dog on a leash. That dog also wore a vest that said “Service Dog” and when Southwest announced that people with disabilities could be boarded, both women rushed to the front of the line to snatch the bulkhead seats.
I sat in the eighth row, window seat. Whitney, a 60 pound yellow Lab / Golden Retriever cross, pushed herself into it, laying her bum under the seat in front of me, and resting her head on my feet. No complaints. She didn’t look at anything during the entire flight.
As soon as we landed, I waited for the two dogs to get into the bulkhead seats before calling Whitney the “Striker!” Command. And then? My seeing eye dog calmly led me off the plane.
Thousands of Americans who are blind or visually impaired use guide dogs. I trained with my first Seeing Eye dog, a black Labrador named Pandora, in 1991, 30 years ago. Whitney, my fourth guide dog, is 11 years old and retired last December. I returned to the Seeing Eye in New Jersey last January to train with my fifth Seeing Eye dog. My return flight from Newark to O’Hare in January with Luna, a spunky two-year-old black Labrador, is the only time I’ve ever flown with her. My Seeing Eye dogs and I typically take about 20 flights a year to give presentations and speak at conferences. (Covid-19 kept us close to our home this year.)
Given the challenges people who work with assistance dogs face while traveling by air, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) needed to amend and clarify its regulations to implement the Air Carrier Access Act. DOT issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) asking the public for comments on these specific topics:
1. Whether to treat psychiatric service animals similarly to other service animals.
2. Whether to distinguish between emotional support animals and other service animals.
3. Whether animals with emotional support have to travel in animal carriers for the duration of the flight.
4. Whether to limit the types of service animals and emotional support animals that airlines must transport.
5. Should the number of service animals / animals for emotional support per passenger be limited?
6. Whether all users of service animals and animals with emotional support should be required to certify that their animal has been trained to behave in a public setting.
7. Whether service animals and animals should be buckled, leashed, or otherwise tied for emotional support.
8. Are there any safety concerns associated with transporting large service animals, and if so, how are these being addressed?
9. Whether airlines should be prohibited from requiring users of service animals to provide a veterinary health form or vaccination protocol without an individual judgment that the animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or causes significant disruption in the aircraft cabin.
Interested parties were invited to submit comments online, by fax or by post. I was one of those prospects, and assistive technology and language software enabled me to fill out a form online.
Beth Finke and Luna (the author’s fifth guide dog)
I have long thought that service animals should be defined as dogs that are (a) individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, and (b) have also received publicly accessible training. “Animals that do not meet these two criteria should be classified as a separate category of service dogs,” I said on my form, adding my story about the dog caught at Midway Airport in the comment section. “The more people are allowed to bring unqualified animals on board, the more encounters we will have with traders who do not control these animals.”
Existing guidelines have long allowed airlines to deny the transport of service animals that are behaving in a disruptive or threatening manner, including excessive barking, biting, growling, and jumping. On Dec. 2, DOT said it had rewritten the rules to make them clearer, adding that passengers bringing unqualified animals on board “undermine public confidence in legitimate service animals.” The new rules will take effect in 30 days.
DOT also mentioned that more and more people are “fraudulently presenting their pets as service animals,” recognizing an increase in bad behavior.
What a privilege it was to be part of the advanced settlement process on an issue that is so important to me and thousands of others who are blind and who travel with qualified service dogs. When it comes to air travel, only dogs can be service animals. Companions used for emotional support do not count, and I see this as good news.
I thank the Ministry of Transport for listening. Once the Covid-19 vaccines are through, Luna and I can be sure that as regular air travelers we can safely return to our lives.