The TWU International filed the below comments in response to a DOT regulatory notice seeking input on how to regulate service animals traveling with passengers. The comments advocate for stronger DOT regulation of emotional support animals, including limits on the type and number of ESAs and proper documentation for the animals.
Ms. Maegan Johnson
Senior Trial Attorney
Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings
US Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20590
July 10, 2018
Dear Ms. Johnson:
On behalf of the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (TWU), I submit these comments to the Office of the Secretary’s Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) that seeks comment on amending the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulations governing the air transport of service animals. The TWU represents 145,000 transportation workers employed in the rail, transit and aviation sectors, including more than twenty thousand commercial flight attendants at Southwest Airlines represented by TWU Local 556, Allegiant Airlines represented by TWU Local 577, and those at JetBlue. We therefore have a vested interest in this proceeding.
In this ANPRM, the DOT seeks feedback on how to amend the ACAA so that individuals with disabilities who use service animals can be assured of nondiscriminatory access to commercial flights while preventing animal service fraud and keeping flight attendants and passengers safe. We agree with the need to strike this careful balance and believe a thoughtful rulemaking can achieve this goal.
As the Department explains in its notice, under the DOT ACAA regulations, a service animal is “[a]ny animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal shown by documentation to be necessary for the emotional wellbeing of a passenger.” Thus, with a few exceptions, DOT requires airlines to transport service animals. This includes emotional support animals (ESAs), which provide emotional support for passengers with a mental/emotional disability but are not trained to do a specific task.
The ANPRM also discusses what TWU flight attendants know firsthand: there has been a stark increase in the number of behavior-related incidents involving those animals. For instance, TWU flight attendants have experienced untethered service animals walking in galleys, and running and defecating in cabin aisles; they’ve been bitten by service animals while handing passengers a service item; and they’ve cared for passengers who were attacked while trying to end fights between service animals sitting in separate rows, etc. These instances have resulted in personal injury, flight delays, diversions, and returns to gate. Based on TWU members’ experience, we believe poorly behaved ESAs comprise much of the behavior incidents. DOT also references the major increase in the number of service animals onboard flights. Given the ESA behavior problems TWU members have encountered coupled with the sheer increase in ESAs flying recently, we are concerned that passengers without emotional or mental disabilities are abusing the access intended for those with legitimate reasons to have support animals.
The ACAA regulations allow airlines some flexibility to create policies for passengers flying with ESAs. While some airlines have put policies in place, it is clear they have been ineffective at preventing fraud and ESAs with bad behavior from flying. We understand that there are legitimate uses for ESAs and that individuals can benefit from having a support animal. To help balance those needs while better ensuring the safety of flight attendants, passengers, and other animals in the aircraft cabin, DOT must issue regulations governing ESAs that address the issues described below.
Limit on Species and Quantity
DOT should adopt regulations that limit the type and quantity of ESAs that may accompany a qualified passenger. Restrictions on species and quantity should be based on the trends that DOT identifies after reviewing data on passenger complaints and instances of onboard behavior incidents. Understanding the types of animals involved in those incidents should help identify which species are safest to fly. Similarly, a reasonable quantity limit based on evidence is appropriate. DOT also should consider the physical space restrictions of an aircraft cabin as it makes these determinations to account for logistical limitations.
While DOT never requires that airlines transport snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents, and spiders as service animals, passengers are flying with unusual animals that may not have proven support benefits and that can pose a range of safety and health risks for flight crewmembers, passengers, and even other animals in the aircraft. In making its determination, DOT should consider which species have proven medical benefits.
Attestation and Documentation
DOT regulations should require attestation and documentation from passengers to demonstrate that the ESA is needed, properly vaccinated, and can behave properly in public.
Currently, DOT allows airlines flexibility to establish their own policies on the types of documents they require from passengers with ESAs. This includes allowing airlines to require ESA users to provide a document signed by the passenger’s mental health professional that the support animal is needed for a recognized disability. Airlines also are permitted to require veterinary forms for ESAs that identify the animal, indicate the animal’s last exam, assure it is free of disease and has been vaccinated, attests that it has not injured or attacked a person recently, and provides identifying information about the signing veterinarian.
While the ACAA currently allows airlines to collect this information, their policies vary, creating a patchwork of requirements that differ among the airlines. Standardizing these documents would allow legitimate ESA users to know what to expect when flying regardless of the airline they choose. We also believe that, given the sharp increase in behavior-related issues, ESA users should attest that their support animal can behavior properly in public. Doing so would help ensure that flight attendants and passengers are exposed only to vaccinated, healthy, and well-behaved animals.
Additionally, these forms should include a clear statement alerting the ESA user that providing false information is prohibited and punishable. This could help dissuade fraud and prevent pets from being brought into the cabin under the guise of a support animal.
Pre-Notification and Check-In
We also support DOT adopting regulations to require that ESA users give advanced notice to airlines of their intent to travel with a support animal. Some airlines currently require that passengers give 48-hours’ notice of their plans to use an ESA on a scheduled flight, but these policies vary among the airlines. To help frontline workers accomodate support animals and make any potential adjustments as needed, advanced notice should be required. We understand that some flexibility may be provided to ESA users who purchase flights inside the specified notice period.
Additionally, DOT should require ESA users to stop at the check-in desk prior to going through security in order to allow the airline’s workers to ensure the animal meets DOT’s specifications and has the required documentation. Currently, some ESAs are never screened before reaching the gate or boarding the aircraft, the point at which employees are working to board passengers quickly and keep the flight on time. If an ESA does not meet the airline standards, there is little time and few options available to find an alternative solution. As a result, flight attendants must resolve an issue presented by an ESA while simultaneously performing their responsibilities. To prevent this, passengers with ESAs should stop at the check-in desk to allow the airline’s employees, trained on DOT’s standards, the ability to review the animal and assure compliance with DOT regulations. Performing this screening before TSA security allows passengers with more time and potential alternative solutions to resolve any issues.
We encourage DOT to adopt a requirement that ESAs be tethered by a harness and/or leash. Tethering is needed to help maintain control of ESAs and should be worn while boarding, all phases of flight, and while egressing. TWU flight attendants have experienced untethered ESAs running throughout the cabin, crawling under seats, and hiding in galleys. While we would expect all ESAs to behave well at all times, in instances when the animal needs to be reined in, having a leash and/or harness can help to do so.
Safety Concerns of Large ESAs
DOT should make clear that if large ESAs impede safety of flight rules, the user must agree to an alternative option that eliminates safety concerns. Regardless of the size of the animal, we believe DOT must continue to prioritize safety of flight rules that protect all those traveling on an aircraft. This includes prohibiting ESAs from sitting in aisle or emergency seats and from blocking egress in any way. Should an emergency occur, flight attendants and passengers must have immediate and unblocked access to emergency routes as needed to save lives. Should a flight attendant identify that the position of an ESA would prevent such access, the user must agree to an alterative option that resolves the placement issue.
Airlines that enter into foreign code share agreements should ensure those agreements have exclusionary language if the foreign code share partner’s ESA policies differ from those adopted by DOT.
TWU flight attendants are aware of the substantial increase in the number of animals, including ESAs, traveling on commercial flights. We appreciate the DOT for recognizing this trend and the increase in animal behavior problems that flight attendants and other airline workers must deal with. We also believe that we can do more to protect the safety and health of these workers and the flying public while protecting the rights of those with disabilities. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this notice and look forward to engaging with the Department as it continues this proceeding.