Government Says Delta’s Ban On Pit Bulls Is Illegal…But Not So Fast

by Miles Jackson

The Department of Transportation has issued a statement on emotional support and service animals that will impact all the US airlines.

In particular, the federal government ruled that the Delta ban on pit bulls to be illegal. Delta had enacted a policy that prevented pit bull type dogs from flying, acting as either emotional support animals (ESA) or as service animals onboard.

What Stoked Delta’s Ban On Pit Bulls?

Delta instituted a ban against “pit bull type dogs” as support animals last year following several onboard incidents.

In one case, a passenger was left with a bloody face after another passenger’s dog attacked him. Of note, that 2017 incident involved a dog which was identified as a mix of chocolate Labrador retriever and pointer. That was a catalyst for the eventual ban, but it did not support Delta’s argument against pit bull dogs specifically.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Issued a “Final Statement of Enforcement Priorities Regarding Service Animals on Flights.” In that statement, the DOT clarified the rules for airlines regarding animals traveling with passengers. The DOT stated airline employees can bar any animal they consider a safety threat at the time.

However, neither Delta, nor any airline as a whole, can enact a ban against an entire breed of dog or cat, such as pit bulls. This makes Delta’s ban of pit bulls illegal. In addition, Delta’s ban on emotional support animals on flights longer than eight hours is also ruled illegal.

The ruling says “airlines may require the passenger using the service animal [on flights longer than eight hours] to provide documentation that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight or that it can do so in a  way that does not create a health or sanitation issue on the flight.”

That makes Southwest’s ban of support animals illegal as well.

Airlines Can Still Restrict Animals, Thanks To DOT

Southwest emotional support animal dog cat policy

What may be a loophole for the airlines is that the DOT found that airlines may ask for and require prior documentation of the animal. That includes “vaccination, training, or behavior so long as it is reasonable to believe that the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

Airlines, like Delta, will likely demand a lot more proof and certifications of animals that a passenger hopes will fly as their service animal or emotional support animal.

These rules clarifications apply to all US carriers, but Delta’s pit bull ban stands out as the elephant in the room. For their part, Delta referenced their policies when questioned about in-flight incidents.

Delta continuously reviews and enhances its policies and procedures for animals onboard as part of its commitment to health, safety and protecting the rights of customers with disabilities. In 2018, Delta tightened its policies on emotional support animals by requiring a “confirmation of animal training” form as well as other official documentation. The airline also banned pit bulls and animals under four months of age as service or support animals. These policy updates reinforce Delta’s core value of putting safety first, always.

Delta Air Lines

The DOT’s Final Statement also addresses a number of other issues, such as species limitations, containment, advance notice, and check-in requirements for Emotional Support and Psychiatric Service Animals.

Delta Service Animal Pit Bull Policy Turkey ESA

Ruling Means Turkey’s Can Still Fly as ESA

This turkey flew on Delta as an emotional support animal – perfectly legal.

Here is the ruling from the DOT in full with a final statement.

For as heated as this topic has been in social media and the press, I am quite surprised that the DOT only received 94 comments when the comment period closed on June 7, 2018.

After all, bad owners allow their animals to poop in the airport, onboard planes, and do other outrageous things.

Related:  The Complete Guide: Flying With Your Pet In The US

The Upshot

The Department of Transportation is seeking to find a balance between the needs of the airlines, those traveling with special needs, and the general flying public. The goal is to “ensure and improve access to air transportation for individuals with disabilities, while also deterring the fraudulent use of animals not qualified as service animals.

Anyone can go to Amazon and find a large assortment of ESA items for sale, thereby “validating” their animal or pet for flying as a service or emotional support animal. Airlines are fighting back and this latest rules clarification are aimed at improving the situation for all.

The greatest tool given and supported by the DOT is the requirement of proof and documentation ahead of flight is the animal’s training, vaccinations and behavior. Couple that with required 48 hour notice (emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric support animals (PSAs) and check-in so the animal can be evaluated, and I bet we see the airlines put more of a burden on flyers wanting to bring their service animals onboard flights.

It’s unfortunate that many fraudulent abuses of this privilege affect the few that really need it.

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10 comments

AlohaDaveKennedy August 12, 2019 - 3:22 pm

What is so unusual able seeing some turkey on a plane? We see many turkeys on planes these days – most with fake emotional support animals.

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Miles Jackson August 12, 2019 - 5:33 pm

Hi AlohaDaveKennedy –
Perhaps true…in fact, hasn’t air travel overall seen crazier and crazier events over the past few years? This is just another chapter in the ongoing drama we see acted out daily in commercial aviation.
Sad, but true…

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Wayne August 12, 2019 - 6:44 pm

What a hot mess. If the Department of Transportation created a license for emotional support dog/handler teams the number of bad incidents would drop dramatically. Service dog/handler teams are licensed by Assistance Dogs International. Certification is proof the team can perform the tasks for which they have been trained. ADI certification is good for three years however most organizations who breed and train service dogs require retesting and recertification more often than that. Though it rarely ever becomes an issue service dogs carry liability insurance, typically $3 million. Airline employees need to understand that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not afford public access to even service dog teams who are unruly, much less emotional support dogs. Teams that cannot behave appropriately prior to boarding can and should be denied boarding.

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Miles Jackson August 12, 2019 - 7:05 pm

Hi Wayne-
Some great observations. Agreed this entire situation has become a ‘mess.’ It does seem that the government is side-stepping what might be a logical approach, as you suggested. Perhaps the airlines will push back harder. My guess is that the documentation requirement will be stepped up to levels that most fraudulent uses would deterred. As I mentioned, that’s unfortunate for the people who really need these animals to fly with them.
Thanks for reading and for your input.

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Tom August 13, 2019 - 11:45 pm

Honestly, the only animals allowed should be trained service animals for the physically disabled. People who claim fraudulent emotional support by buying items online so they can have their animals travel with them is fraud and just want to abuse the system. I support the ban on pit bulls and other animals who are prone to aggressive behavior.

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Miles Jackson August 14, 2019 - 12:08 am

Hi Tom –
Lawmakers don’t see it the same way. That’s why we have emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals (PSA’s); a recognized sub-category of the service animal. So until voters get their lawmakers to change these laws we’re facing a struggle between many competing interests. Of course, some of those interests are fraudulent. There are plenty of interest groups willing to challenge every law, rule and policy.

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Raini October 18, 2019 - 2:50 am

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act–which the ACAA uses to define acceptable service animals–ANY breed of dog can be a service dog. There has NEVER been an incident of a TRAINED service dog of ANY breed attacking anyone. If pit bulls were inherently violent, they would be the FIRST service dogs to attack someone. Yet it has never happened (and do NOT even try and tell me pit bulls aren’t used as service dogs when all I have to do is think about pit bull service dogs and I’ll trigger half a dozen search results on YouTube alone). Discriminating against a person with a disability because you don’t like the shape or color of their medical adaptive equipment (which service animals are legally considered to be) is a civil rights violation and is therefore 100% illegal. NO EXCEPTIONS!

What’s more, “pit bull” isn’t even a breed. It’s a general term for a brachycephalic dog that is generally taller than an English bulldog, from which it may or may not be descended. Which means Delta’s illegal ban covers not just its primary target, the American Staffordshire terrier, but also the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American bulldog (which isn’t a terrier at all). It also covers mixes with these breeds or other mixed breeds that may resemble them, such as boxer-Rottweiler mixes. That’s a LOT of breeds AND handlers who may be rejected from Delta flights because they have disabilities requiring a service animal.

So, if your opinion is in violation of the ADA, your opinion is wrong. You are entitled to it so long as you do not use it to harm other people–such as people with disabilities whose service animals happen to be pit bulls or pit bull lookalikes–and so long as you accept the fact that it will ALWAYS be wrong and will NEVER be legally recognized as valid. Civil rights trump your itty bitty wittle feeweengs. Deal with it.

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Miles Jackson October 18, 2019 - 4:52 am

Raini,
Certainly this issues gets both sides heated up. We’ll be watching for the final decision from the DOT. At that point, I am sure we will see some legal action (possibly on both sides) to firm their ‘opinions.’ Thanks for the comment and sharing.

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Stephanie J Dunigan July 24, 2020 - 9:44 am

When I called Delta to buy my tickets for my 10 year old son and I. I straight out asked about the acceptance of my service dog. I was told all were accepted and to just fill out the paper work and send it in. Not 3 days until my flight and I find it that my mobility service dog. That helps me to walk, go up and down steps, and keeps me stable. Will not be allowed to fly with me… I understand that Delta can and is willing to provide assistance for me during my flight both ways. My question is with out my service dog who is going to assist me during my stay at my location..

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Miles Jackson July 24, 2020 - 8:06 pm

Stephanie-
Your frustration is understandable as I’m sure you rely on your service dog during your time at your destination. Delta changed their policies in August of last year. Their website spells out the requirements stating:
“To travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal, passengers must upload the required documentation at least 48 hours before a flight.”
It’s unfortunate, but a reality, that these changes have been forced upon the airlines by abusers of the (lenient) emotional support and service animal policies of the past.

Reply

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