As if keeping the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) straight wasn’t difficult enough, my practice also involves a horse of a different color—the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  So I thought I would take a break from my usual topics and address the elephant in the room—the recent airline incident involving an emotional support peacock that was denied access to a flight at Newark Liberty International Airport.  This story has really taken flight since it was first reported, sparking a firestorm of questions surrounding the limitations and qualifications of assistance animals.

The principal question that I have been asked the most is, what exactly constitutes an assistance animal?  That is a valid question—and it depends on whom, or which law, more specifically, you ask.  The FHA is my bread and butter, so let’s tackle that one first.  Under the FHA, an assistance animal is defined as “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.”  The FHA includes emotional support animals in its definition of assistance animals in order to deal with a broader scope of disabilities.  Contrast this from the ADA, which applies to businesses and areas generally open to the public.  The ADA has the most stringent of definitions, dealing only with service animals, and defining them as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.”  Under the ADA, emotional support animals are not recognized as service animals, and only dogs (and miniature horses, for those keeping score at home) qualify as service animals.

Now you might be thinking, wouldn’t the situation at issue fall under the ADA since the airport is a public place?  As it turns out, you would be partially correct—while the ADA applies to the airport building itself (including the lobbies, security areas, terminals, etc.), the actual airplanes themselves are subject to the ACAA.  The ACAA defines assistance animals as, “any 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 well-being of a passenger.”  As you can see, this definition is very similar to the FHA and, therefore, emotional support animals are allowed under the ACAA.  However, the caveat to this rule is that if the animal “would pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others[,]” then the airline has the right to deny that animal access to the flight.

So what’s the bottom line?  Airlines need to be more inclusive of exotic animals?  Pride can only get you so far? I need to stop squeezing in as many bird/animal puns as I can find? All of these might be true, but the main takeaway is this—it is important to know not only when these laws have jurisdiction, but also what accommodations they provide in regards to assistance animals.