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DOT Service Animal Final Rule: No More Service Snakes on Planes

Those dreaming of taking to the skies next year with scaled, feathered, or furry friends may want to take a look at the recent DOT Service Animal Final Rule before making travel plans.

In an employment setting, there is no federal law that specifically restricts the type of service animals that are permissible in the workplace. Employers instead must rely upon state Fair Employment Practices Acts and the public accommodation language concerning service animals in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, working through the reasonable accommodation dialogue/process with the employee to determine whether you can accommodate the employee’s need to have a service animal in the workplace.

From a travel perspective, there is a federal law that provides standards for service animals- the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The ACAA prohibits discrimination based on disability in air travel. The law addresses service animals, among other aspects of air travel, including accessible facilities and other accommodations for those with disabilities throughout the travel process. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has the responsibility of administering the ACAA. In February 2020, the DOT issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. In the announcement, the DOT stated the objective of the rule would be to “amend the definition of a service animal in air transportation and includes safeguards to ensure safety and reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets on aircraft will be able to falsely claim that their pets are service animals”[1].

On December 2, 2020 the DOT issued the Final Rule on Service Animals. The new regulations include:

  1. defining a service animal as a dog and no longer requiring airlines to accommodate miniature horses, cats, rabbits, birds and all other service animals that airlines are currently required to transport;
  2. permitting airlines to treat emotional support animals as a pet and not requiring airlines to recognize emotional support animals as service animals;
  3. requiring airlines to treat psychiatric service animals the same as other service animals that are trained to do work or perform tasks to assist a qualified individual with a disability and no longer allowing airlines to impose additional requirements on individuals traveling with psychiatric service animals as a condition of transport; and
  4. allowing airlines to require service animal users to provide a form developed by DOT attesting to the dog’s health, behavior, and training to assist the airline in determining if the dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others but prohibiting other forms.

The biggest change here is narrowing the definition of “service animal” to include only dogs. The outcome of this will be that service animals that are not dogs will have to be treated as regular pets (and compete for space in the cargo hold subject to a fee). Owners will have to fly without their furry (or fuzzy, or scaly) friend in the cabin. However, the rule does provide some relief to travelers with psychiatric service animals who will no longer need to adhere to additional restrictions imposed by airlines. How does this relate to your work as an HR Professional? As many know, courts often will look to other regulations concerning service animals in determining the reasonableness of a company’s refusal to accommodate a service animal as the company works to create an environment where an employee can accomplish the essential functions of the position.

While the rule has yet to be published in the Federal Register, the DOT estimates it is likely to become effective in early 2021. For more information about your service animal accommodation responsibilities, reach out to member of Verrill’s Employment and Labor Practice Group.

[1]DOT Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – Traveling by Air with Service Animals

Topics: Labor Laws