The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) was enacted in 1986. The law prohibits discrimination by commercial airlines on the basis of disability. An individual is considered "disabled" if he or she (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. This law requires that each complaint under this section are investigated and those data reviewed/reported. Regulations under the ACAA from 2008 set forth requirements for service brought animals on commercial flights. The Department of Transportation is the federal agency that implements the ACAA.
Under regulations issued under the ACAA, carriers must permit service animals to accompany passengers with disabilities. A carrier must permit the service animal to accompany the passenger with a disability at any seat in which the passenger sits unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area. Essentially, the service animal must be allowed to sit at the passenger’s feet, or, in the case of small animals, on the passenger’s lap if it can be done safely.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) allows identification of a service animal by the presence of harnesses, tags, or "the credible verbal assurances of a qualified individual with a disability using the animal." The DOT also indicates that airline personnel observe the behavior of the animal to make a determination. A document that categorizes the difference in service animal requirements under different several federal laws suggests that air carriers ask passengers, “What has it been trained to do for you?” or “Would you describe how the animal performs this task (or function) for you?” See https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/P3.SA_.HUD%20Matrix.6-28-6.pdf. However, the DOT warns that carriers are not permitted to ask details about the person’s disability.
Advance notice to bring a service animal is not required unless the flight segment scheduled to take 8 hours or more. 14 C.F.R. § 382.27(c)(9). The DOT informational webpage on service animals also says that, on a flight scheduled 8 hours or longer, “airlines may require documentation stating that your animal will not need to relieve itself, or can do so in a sanitary way." See https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals-including-emotional-support-animals.
Unusual Service Animals
According to the DOT, a carrier is never required to accommodate certain unusual service animals (e.g., snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders). With respect to all other animals, including unusual or exotic animals (e.g., miniature horses, pigs, monkeys), a carrier must determine whether any factors preclude their traveling in the cabin as service animals (e.g., is the animal too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin, would it pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others, would it cause a significant disruption of cabin service, would it be prohibited from entering a foreign country that is the flight's destination, etc.). Foreign carriers, however, are not required to carry service animals other than dogs.
Interestingly, the DOT informational webpage on service animals also adds “sugar gliders” to the list of unusual service animals that are not required accommodation aboard a flight. See https://www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals-including-emotional-support-animals.
Emotional Support Animals
Passengers seeking to bring emotional support animals or psychiatric service animals in the cabin must provide 48 hours’ advance notice and check in one hour before the check-in time for the general public. 14 C.F.R. § 382.27(c)(8).
If a passenger seeks to travel with an emotional support animal, he or she must provide current documentation on the letterhead of a licensed mental health professional. The regulation specifically states, “[Y]ou [the commercial airline] are not required to accept the animal for transportation in the cabin unless the passenger provides you current documentation.” It must be no older than one year from the date of the passenger’s initial scheduled flight. This documentation must state all of 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.
Psychiatric Service Animals
Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal laws, a psychiatric service animal is classified as an emotional support animal for purposes of ACAA regulations. A psychiatric service animal is an animal trained to do work or perform functions for a person with a psychiatric disability. This differs from an emotional support animal, which provides comfort for a person with an emotional, mental, or psychiatric disability, but is not a trained animal. A trained psychiatric service animal and emotional support animal are treated the same for purposes of documentation and inquiry under the ACAA regulations.
Behavior of Animals
The ACAA regulation on service animals begins with this statement: “You must not deny transportation to a service animal on the basis that its carriage may offend or annoy carrier personnel or persons traveling on the aircraft.” Despite this, the DOT notes on its webpage that an animal must “behave properly.” In fact, the DOT notes the following: “An animal that engages in disruptive behavior (ex. barking or snarling, running around, and/or jumping onto other passengers, etc. without being provoked) will not be accepted as a service animal.”
Notably, a matrix/table of service animal laws produced by the federal government notes that ACAA regulations do NOT require that a service animal be harnessed, leashed or tethered. The airport facilities, which would be under the purview of the ADA, would require that a service animal be harnessed, leashed or tethered unless those devices interfered with the animal’s work.
Complaints under the ACAA
The regulations also established a complaint process for disabled passengers. According to § 382.117(g), when an air carrier decides not to accept an animal as a service animal, that carrier must explain the reason for the decision to the passenger and document it in writing. A copy of the explanation must be provided to the passenger either at the airport, or within 10 calendar days of the incident. 14 C.F.R. § 382.117(g). For more on filing complaints, please see the DOT's page on filing complaints under the ACAA.