Airline Conundrum

Puppy Death and 'Dexter The Peacock' Highlight Conundrum Faced by U.S. Airlines With Animals Aboard

Carriers must juggle legal mandates, passenger needs and safety concerns, writes veteran aviation attorney Mark A. Dombroff.

Travel Industry Wire

U.S. airlines need to make sure their employees grasp key legalities related to how animals and their owners should be treated as they fly, advises LeClairRyan aviation attorney Mark A. Dombroff in a new column on

"When it comes to animals on planes, U.S. airlines are stuck in the unenviable position of trying to juggle complex legal mandates, legitimate passenger needs and serious safety concerns," writes Dombroff, an Alexandria-based member of the national law firm and co-leader of its aviation industry practice.

Two federal statutes are in play: the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, he explains. "A simple rubric for employees: Generally speaking, if it happens on the ground, it's governed by ADA," he writes. "Once you're on the plane, it's the Air Carrier Access Act, with the captain as final authority."

In the March 20 post, Dombroff cites a litany of incidents that have focused attention on the issue of animals on planes—including the death of a 10-month-old puppy in a United Airlines overhead bin earlier this month. Both United and Delta have tightened policies on emotional support animals, the attorney notes. "Various outlets reported that the airlines--having patiently endured people bringing the likes of pigs, monkeys, snakes, turkeys and kangaroos onto planes for years--were finally saying 'Enough!'" he writes. "If only it were that simple."

Dombroff advises airlines to educate employees about the distinctions between service animals and emotional support animals. The latter provide emotional, psychiatric or cognitive support for individuals with disabilities, but may or may not have task-specific training with respect to a disability. "This is the category to which turkeys, ducks, snakes, peacocks and the like typically belong," he writes.

By contrast, trained service animals receive specific training to perform life functions for individuals with disabilities. Examples include those that help with visual impairments, deafness, seizures and mobility limitations. "The ADA contains specific provisions on service animals (dogs, in particular)," Dombroff notes. "It is critical for airline employees to understand that the Act sharply constrains the kinds of questions they may legally ask travelers with trained service animals."

In the piece, the attorney describes these constraints in detail and notes the consequences of violating them. "The airline could easily face litigation by one of those aggressive 'drive-by' ADA lawyers and, as we see all too often, a barrage of social media attention," Dombroff writes. He also points to existing gray areas in the law. "There is a potential snag in requiring, as United has, that ESAs be 'trained to behave properly in a public setting,'" Dombroff writes. "No federal agency has ever validated a specific training protocol for either emotional support animals or service animals."

Unfortunately, some passengers may continue to pay online providers for questionable certificates and medical letters in order to get pets on planes for free, he notes. Nonetheless, by creating additional deterrence, U.S. airlines may reduce the number of problematic emotional support animals that take to the skies. "Otherwise, intervention by the federal government, with all of the unintended consequences this typically entails, is the likeliest scenario," he concludes. "That could make flying more difficult for disabled passengers who really are helped by having a four-legged friend by their side."

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