NCD advises DOT on Air Carrier Access Act service animal provisions

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April 28, 2020

WASHINGTON—The National Council on Disability--an independent federal agency--has made recommendations to Department of Transportation concerning recommended changes to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

In a letter addressed to DOT Secretary Elaine L. Chao, NCD responds to notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the ACAA’s service animal provisions.

There are multiple proposed changes within the NPRM, such as: amendments to the service animal definition which omits emotional support animals (ESAs), restrictions on the breed of a service animal, and additional compliance requirements upon a person with a disability traveling with a service animal.

“NCD acknowledges the airline industry’s frustration caused by fraud perpetrated by consumers falsely claiming that their pets are service animals or ESAs,” wrote NCD Chairman Neil Romano. “However, the ACAA must not conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Chairman Romano stated the proposed changes would create additional hardships and bureaucratic hurdles for people with disabilities to navigate, placing undue burdens on legitimate service dog users.

DOT’s proposed ACAA service animal definition would define a service animal as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability. 

“NCD applauds DOT for including psychiatric service animals under the service animals ‘umbrella’”, wrote the Chairman. “Doing so will remove the required medical documentation, 48 hours advance notice, and check in requirements for psychiatric service animal users.”

However, the recommendation to omit emotional support animals (ESAs) as a covered entity is not something NCD agrees with. 

“NCD believes that omitting them entirely from air travel would negatively impact access to air travel to a portion of the disability community,” wrote Chairman Romano. 

In terms of a validation process, NCD opposes DOT’s proposed rule that a person with a disability traveling with a service animal be required to report to the airport one hour before other passengers for an individual assessment of a service animal’s potential threat. ACAA already offers authority to airline personnel to refuse boarding any person’s service animal if they deem the service animal to be a direct threat to the health and safety of others, or if the animal’s owner does not seem to have the animal under control. 

“Airline personnel may easily observe the individual and the service animal’s interactions within the airport, from curbside to the gate,” wrote the Chairman. “If airline personnel observe any problems with the service animal, they can make a professional determination to refuse [boarding]. There is no need to place additional provisions or undue burdens upon a person with a disability traveling with a service animal if the authority to be conveyed already exists.” 

Another proposed change is the additional requirements placed on travelers with disabilities to show additional forms and documentation. NCD opposes travelers needing to bring mandatory documentation with them while traveling and sees it as an undue burden placed upon the person with a disability with a service animal. 

NCD recommends DOT follow Department of Justice’s current service animal definition regulation, which allows an entity to ask if the dog is a service animal required due to a disability, and what work or task the dog is trained to perform. No certification, licensing, identification or documentation is required as proof of a service animal.

“As a more reasonable and less expensive alternative, NCD recommends that all annual training of airline personnel include sessions explaining the needs of a person with a disability traveling with a service animal, and what is allowed under airline policies, the ACAA, and the ADA,” wrote Chairman Romano. “The rationale for this training is to improve airline personnel understanding and treatment of people with disabilities while traveling.” 

Such training should inform personnel about specific behaviors not indicative of service animals and how to notify a gate agent or supervisor if they have questions or make any observations about concerning behavior. 

“NCD understands the unique nature of air travel and issues that untrained animals may present in the air. However, the way to mitigate those issues is not to place additional regulatory burdens on the traveler with a disability with a service animal. 

Read the full letter of recommendations on NCD.gov.