Service Animals & Support Animals

Service Animals & Support Animals

By: Andrew Skomorowsky

Service animals and emotional support animals are a mix of hard-working animals with specific training, and trusted companions to humans who benefit from their affection and proximity.  They also become points of contention and litigation, and at times the punchline of jokes.[1]

Yet the United States government appears to be taking these animals seriously. A 2018 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) by the Department of Transportation (DOT) states: “The Department recognizes the integral role that service animals play in the lives of many individuals with disabilities and wants to ensure seamless access to air transportation for individuals with disabilities while also helping to deter the fraudulent use of animals not qualified as service animals.”[2]

One argument against the presence of service animals aboard aircraft is that theoretically, the animal could become a hazard itself in case of an emergency.  But the Department of Transportation resoundingly refutes this:

B. FAA Review of NTSB[3] Part 121 Accident Reports. The FAA has reviewed all available NTSB accident reports for part 121 commercial aircraft accidents with at least one fatality occurring between January 1, 1990, and November 28, 2007. The FAA found no information that the presence of a service animal or its placement or location on an airplane negatively impacted an airplane evacuation or a particular individual's emergency exit from an airplane.

C. FAA Review of NTSB Safety Reports. The FAA also reviewed NTSB Safety Report 01/01, Survivability of Accidents Involving Part 121 U.S. Air Carrier Operations, 1983 Through 2000, and NTSB Safety Study 00/01, Emergency Evacuation of Commercial Airplanes, and again found no information that either the presence of a service animal or its placement or location on the airplane negatively impacted an airplane evacuation or a particular individual's emergency exit from an airplane.

Department of Transportation Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS) 8900.1 Volume 3 Chapter 33 Section 6. Safety Assurance System: Operations “Cabin Safety”

But what about the now-infamous emotional-support peacock (named Dexter, according to the article cited above)?  The DOT has this to say about him:

4) Unusual Service Animals. As stated in the DOT guidance issued on May 9, 2003, unusual service animals pose unavoidable safety and/or public health concerns and airlines are not required to transport them. Snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders fall within this category of animals. The release of such an animal in the aircraft cabin could result in a direct threat to the health or safety of passengers and crewmembers. For these reasons, airlines are not required to transport these types of service animals in the cabin, and carriage in the cargo hold will generally be in accordance with company policies on the carriage of animals.

Department of Transportation Flight Standards Information Management System (FSIMS) 8900.1 Volume 3 Chapter 33 Section 6. Safety Assurance System: Operations “Cabin Safety” (emphasis added)

But herein lies a problem: in a conflict between a passenger with a service animal’s right to travel, and another passenger’s right to be unmolested by a large and notoriously attention-getting bird[4], who wins?  In some cases, documentation can be required by an airline to demonstrate that the animal in question is in fact a service animal.[5] 

If a passenger seeks to travel with an animal that is used as an emotional support or psychiatric service animal, you are not required to accept the animal for transportation in the cabin unless the passenger provides you current documentation (i.e., no older than one year from the date of the passenger's scheduled initial flight) on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker including a medical doctor specifically treating the passenger's mental or emotional disability) stating the following:

(1) The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders--Fourth Edition (DSM IV);

(2) The passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger's destination;

(3) The individual providing the assessment 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.

14 C.F.R. § 382.117 (Lexis Advance through the February 20, 2019 issue of the Federal Register. Title 3 is current through February 1, 2019)

The practical upshot of this is, that passengers with an emotional need for a support animal are subject to stricter scrutiny than a passenger with a “purely” physical limitation requiring animal support.

And while some passengers might be amused by the presence of an emotional-support peacock, what if we pull the classic law-school scenario and change the facts: make it an emotional-support cobra instead.  What result? We don’t have to imagine it – Hollywood has already done so for us.[6]

Service animals blur the distinction between pet and partner; in many cases these animals undergo extensive testing and training prior to being paired with a human who benefits from their hard work.  Emotional support animals further blur the line due to their “softer” task set – but their work is no less important than helping a blind person navigate a city sidewalk.  And because reasonable people can disagree, there will always be preferences for companionship that are at best mysterious to the larger population.  Perhaps we all just need to see with different eyes.

[1] “‘Emotional support peacock’ barred from United Airlines plane,” BBC.com, (January 31, 2018), found at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42880690 (last visited February 24, 2019).

[2]U.S. Department of Transportation Seeks Comment on Amending Regulations Concerning Service Animals on Flights,” Department of Transportation, (May 16, 2018).

[3] Author’s note: The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency tasked in pertinent part with investigating aircraft accidents.

[4] Peacocks, as it turns out, have a well-deserved reputation for being excellent guard animals.  See “Meet Percival the peacock: Defender of chickens, protector of the farm”, Mashable.com, (October 8, 2016) found at https://mashable.com/2016/10/18/percival-the-peacock-chicken-defender-australia/#oY7V4.sN7kqm (last visited February 24, 2019).

[5] DOT FSIMS 8900.1, D(3).

[6]Snakes on a Plane,” (2006) IMDB.com, found at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0417148/, (last visited February 24, 2019).