New 2021 Rules for Flying with Service Dogs

By Beth Finke, January 2021

Early in December 2020, I wrote an article here about the final rule issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT) on traveling by air with service animals. The rule was published in the Federal Register a few weeks later, which clears the way for it to go into effect on Monday, January 11, 2021.

Starting that day, passengers will have to pay to have their emotional support animals travel with them. With trained service dogs as the only animals allowed in the cabin free of charge, DOT estimates airlines will gain up to $59.6 million a year in pet fees.

The U.S. DOT, after receiving over 15,000 comments, changed the rules governing service animals on planes. Those new rules for 2021:

• Define a service animal as being a dog (not another species) who has been individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.
• No longer consider an emotional support animal to be a service animal.
• Require that psychiatric service animals be treated the same as other service animals.
• Allow carriers to require forms to attest to service animal’s health, training and behavior.
• Allow carriers to require that those forms be submitted 48 hours before the flight.
• Reiterate that carriers cannot prohibit a service animal based on breed (a previous rule that will not change).

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Service animal organizations—including the Seeing Eye, where I trained with my service dog, Luna—are pleased with certain aspects of the rule, including the definition of service animal as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified person with a disability.”

One thing many service dog organizations do not like about the 2020 ruling? The new DOT form that’s required before traveling, viewed as an additional burden imposed on guide dog handlers.

Airlines will be required to have the Service Animal Air Transportation form on their websites, including a version accessible to people who use assistive technology—the screen reader I’m using with my laptop to write this article, for example.

Service dog organizations say they will be watching closely as airlines begin to implement the new rule. The DOT can only take action against an airline if individuals exercise their right to file a complaint. Qualified service dog handlers who encounter barriers to air travel—including inaccessible forms—are encouraged to file a DOT Civil Rights complaint form.

Beth Finke is the author of Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh award for children’s literature. Her most recent book is Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors.

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