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14 CFR Part 382 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel (Air Carrier Access Act): Preamble and Section-by-Section Analysis (with amendments issued through July 2010)

Note: This preamble to 14 CFR Part 382 includes a section-by-section analysis but may not reflect the regulation text in its entirety. Click here to see the complete regulation.

Service Animals

How do I know it’s a service animal and not a pet?

Remember: In most situations the key is training. Generally, a service animal is individually trained to perform functions to assist the passenger who is a qualified individual with a disability. In a few extremely limited situations, an animal such as a seizure alert animal may be capable of performing functions to assist a qualified person with a disability without individualized training. Also, an animal used for emotional support need not have specific training for that function. Similar to an animal that has been individually trained, the definition of a service animal includes: An animal that has been shown to have the innate ability to assist a person with a disability; or an emotional support animal.

These five steps can help one determine whether an animal is a service animal or a pet:

1. Obtain credible verbal assurances: Ask the passenger: “Is this your pet?” If the passenger responds that the animal is a service animal and not a pet, but uncertainty remains about the animal, appropriate follow-up questions would include:

  • “What tasks or functions does your animal perform for you?" or

  • “What has it been trained to do for you?”

  • “Would you describe how the animal performs this task (or function) for you?”

    • As noted earlier, functions include, but are not limited to:

      • A. helping blind or visually impaired people to safely negotiate their surroundings;

      • B. alerting deaf and hard-of-hearing persons to sounds;

      • C. helping people with mobility impairments to open and close doors, retrieve objects, transfer from one seat to another, maintain balance; or

      • D. alert or respond to a disability-related need or emergency (e.g., seizure, extreme social anxiety or panic attack).

    • Note that to be a service animal that can properly travel in the cabin, the animal need not necessarily perform a function for the passenger during the flight. For example, some dogs are trained to help pull a passenger’s wheelchair or carry items that the passenger cannot readily carry while using his or her wheelchair. It would not be appropriate to deny transportation in the cabin to such a dog.

    • If a passenger cannot provide credible assurances that an animal has been individually trained or is able to perform some task or function to assist the passenger with his or her disability, the animal might not be a service animal. In this case, the airline personnel may require documentation (see Documentation below).

    • There may be cases in which a passenger with a disability has personally trained an animal to perform a specific function (e.g., seizure alert). Such an animal may not have been trained through a formal training program (e.g., a “school” for service animals). If the passenger can provide a reasonable explanation of how the animal was trained or how it performs the function for which it is being used, this can constitute a “credible verbal assurance” that the animal has been trained to perform a function for the passenger.

2. Look for physical indicators on the animal: Some service animals wear harnesses, vests, capes or backpacks. Markings on these items or on the animal’s tags may identify it as a service animal. It should be noted, however, that the absence of such equipment does not necessarily mean the animal is not a service animal. Similarly, the presence of a harness or vest on a pet for which the passenger cannot provide such credible verbal assurance may not be sufficient evidence that the animal is, in fact, a legitimate service animal.

3. Request documentation for service animals other than emotional support or psychiatric service animals: The law allows airline personnel to ask for documentation as a means of verifying that the animal is a service animal, but DOT’s rules tell carriers not to require documentation as a condition for permitting an individual to travel with his or her service animal in the cabin unless a passenger’s verbal assurance is not credible. In that case, the airline may require documentation as a condition for allowing the animal to travel in the cabin. This should be an infrequent situation. The purpose of documentation is to substantiate the passenger’s disability-related need for the animal’s accompaniment, which the airline may require as a condition to permit the animal to travel in the cabin. Examples of documentation include a letter from a licensed professional treating the passenger’s condition (e.g., physician, mental health professional, vocational case manager, etc.)

4. Require documentation for emotional support and psychiatric service animals: With respect to an animal used for emotional support (which need not have specific training for that function but must be trained to behave appropriately in a public setting), airline personnel may require current documentation (i.e., not more than one year old) on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional, including a medical doctor that is treating the passenger’s mental or emotional disability stating (1) that the passenger has a mental health-related disability listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV); (2) that having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment; (3) that the individual providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and (4) the date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued. Airline personnel may require this documentation as a condition of permitting the animal to accompany the passenger in the cabin. The purpose of this provision is to prevent abuse by passengers that do not have a medical need for an emotional support animal and to ensure that passengers who have a legitimate need for emotional support animals are permitted to travel with their service animals on the aircraft. Airlines are not permitted to require the documentation to specify the type of mental health disability, e.g., panic attacks.

There is a separate category of service animals generally known as “psychiatric service animals.” These animals may be trained by their owners, sometimes with the assistance of a professional trainer, to perform tasks such as fetching medications, reminding the user to take medications, helping people with balance problems caused by medications or an underlying condition, bringing a phone to the user in an emergency or activating a specially equipped emergency phone, or acting as a buffer against other people crowding too close). As with emotional support animals, it is possible for this category of animals to be a source of abuse by persons attempting to circumvent carrier rules concerning transportation of pets. Consequently, it is appropriate for airlines to apply the same advance notice and documentation requirements to psychiatric service animals as they do to emotional support animals.

5. Observe behavior of animals: Service animals are trained to behave properly in public settings. For example, a properly trained guide dog will remain at its owner’s feet. It does not run freely around an aircraft or an airport gate area, bark or growl repeatedly at other persons on the aircraft, bite or jump on people, or urinate or defecate in the cabin or gate area. An animal that engages in such disruptive behavior shows that it has not been successfully trained to function as a service animal in public settings. Therefore, airlines are not required to treat it as a service animal, even if the animal performs an assistive function for a passenger with a disability or is necessary for a passenger’s emotional well-being.

What about service animals in training?

Part 382 requires airlines to allow service animals to accompany their handlers5 in the cabin of the aircraft, but airlines are not required otherwise to carry animals of any kind either in the cabin or in the cargo hold. Airlines are free to adopt any policy they choose regarding the carriage of pets and other animals (e.g., search and rescue dogs) provided that they comply with other applicable requirements (e.g., the Animal Welfare Act). Although “service animals in training” are not pets, the ACAA does not include them, because “in training” status indicates that they do not yet meet the legal definition of service animal. However, like pet policies, airline policies regarding service animals in training vary. Some airlines permit qualified trainers to bring service animals in training aboard an aircraft for training purposes. Trainers of service animals should consult with airlines, and become familiar with their policies.

 5 Service animal users typically refer to the person who accompanies the animal as the “handler.”

What about a service animal that is not accompanying a qualified individual with a disability?

When a service animal is not accompanying a passenger with a disability, the airline's general policies on the carriage of animals usually apply. Airline personnel should know their company’s policies on pets, service animals in training, and the carriage of animals generally. Individuals planning to travel with a service animal other than their own should inquire about the applicable policies in advance.


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