Sunday, August 9, 2015

All Major U.S. Airport Terminals Will Soon Have Service Animal Relief Areas

All but the smallest airports will soon have one service animal relief area in each terminal, and most will be inside the secured sections of the airport so that service animal users who have already gone through security will not have to do so a second time just to take a dog to a relief area.  The placement of relief areas will also benefit passengers flying with pets that can be taken into cabins, i.e., generally dogs less than 20 pounds, and will also make life easier for the handlers of TSA bomb dogs who work at the airports. The final rules do not, however, require that airports provide escorts for passengers who need assistance in taking animals to and from relief areas, and do not impose website notice or signage requirements. (As discussed below, there is already an escort requirement, but it applies only to the airlines.)

It has taken four years for the Department of Transportation to get to this point.  On September 29, 2011, the Department proposed rules on service animal relief areas at airports.  On August 5, 2015, final rules were at last published in the Federal Register with significant changes from the earlier proposal. (I had predicted in a 2011 blog that the rules would be fast-tracked.  Obviously I was mistaken.)  Part of the reason for the delay was likely due to the fact that there are already service animal relief area requirements that apply to airlines and the rules to be applied to airports had to take into account the existing rules for airlines. Something had to be done, however, as the rules for airlines were not resulting in enough relief areas, and such as were being created were often very difficult for passengers with service animals to reach. Fortunately, that will now change.

The final rules are effective October 15, 2015, but airports have a year, until August 4, 2016, to meet the new relief area requirements.  The final rules are reproduced in an Appendix at the end of this blog. Additional guidance issued in May 2016 is the subject of an additional blog on this site.

Airports and Service Animal Users Disagree over Location of Relief Areas

In 2011, the Department of Transportation asked for comments on how large service animal relief areas in airports should be, what surface materials would be optimal, the maximum distance service animal users should be expected to have to go to get a dog to a relief area, and what sort of maintenance of the areas should be required.  Commenters who were service animal users and disability organizations favored non-cement surfaces and suggested that outdoors relief areas should have overhangs.  As to where relief areas should be located, most such commenters said there should be “at least one relief area in each airport terminal.”  Some suggested that there should be one service animal relief area for every 15 gates or at every quarter of a mile throughout an airport.

As to whether relief areas had to be available in sterile areas of the airport—i.e., after passengers with service animals had gone through security checkpoints—the Department states the following:

“There is overwhelming support by individual commenters and disability organizations that at least one relief area should be located in the sterile area of each airport terminal.  Airports and airport associations, however, advocate that the rule not specifically mandate that service animal relief areas be located in the sterile area of an airport.”

The Department notes that some passengers with service animals had commented that “they were often forced to create itineraries with longer layover times because of the amount of time it takes for passengers with a disability to locate service animal relief areas and the amount of time it takes to exit the sterile area, relieve a service animal, and pass through security again.”

In general, commenters representing airports and airport organizations wanted the rules to be unspecific as to such details and generally follow the relief-area rules that apply to airlines in 14 CFR 382.51(a)(5), which state only that:

“In cooperation with the airport operator and in consultation with local service animal training organization(s), you must provide animal relief areas for service animals that accompany passengers departing, connecting, or arriving at an airport on your flights.”

In other words, the airports and their business associations wanted to be able to decide for themselves where the relief areas should be, what they should look like, and how easy they should be to get to.  Although consultation with a local service animal training organization would be required if the airport rules followed the airline rules, the airports wanted the involvement of service dog organizations to be no more than advisory. 

Website Information and Signage  

Service dog users want airports to indicate where relief areas are on their websites, make braille maps available to individuals with visual impairments, and perhaps develop a universal symbol for service animal relief areas, similar to the symbols for men’s and women’s bathrooms.  The Airports Council International argued, in contrast, that additional signage of this sort would overload passengers with information most do not need.  The Council argued that providing escorts for passengers with service animals to get to a relief area, already required of airlines under 14 CFR 382.91(c), should be sufficient. (I had argued in my 2011 blog that there should be signage requirements and that, in any case, "it is difficult to imagine that airports will have any resistance to such requirements."  I said that "airports will not want service animal users constantly asking personnel and other airport users where a relief area is located." As already noted, my crystal ball malfunctioned on this and other matters.)

What the Department of Transportation Has Now Decided

The Department of Transportation has decided not to require specific dimensions, designs, materials, or maintenance requirements for relief areas, though it has determined that they must be wheelchair accessible.  Fortunately, the Department said that this does not mean that airports can do whatever they wanted with respect to relief areas because they must consult with service animal training organizations regarding the designs. The preamble to the final rules states:

“We expect that most airports will likely choose to work with local chapters of national service animal training organizations to comply with this requirement as those organizations may be better suited to make specific suggestions that are tailored to individual airports….”

One Relief Area per Terminal

Under the new rules, there must be at least one relief area for each terminal in an airport.  The Department decided that this requirement was better than setting a maximum amount of time that it would take to get to a relief area from a gate.  A requirement to provide escort services for service animal users was not imposed on the airports because, as noted above, under 14 CFR 382.91(c) this is already required of U.S. and foreign air carriers.  Thus, this remains a responsibility of the carriers, but not of the airports themselves, although the latter are to be consulted.  

(I had argued in my 2011 blog on the proposed rules that there should be an escort requirement imposed on the airports as well as the airlines and still believe this would be preferable.  Airlines have varying degrees of presence in different airports, with ticket counters and boarding gates not always staffed when a service animal user might need assistance.  It will be important for service animal organizations to monitor whether the effectiveness of escort systems changes as the new relief areas are constructed. With the increased number of relief areas, presumably the costs to the airlines of paying staff to provide escort to and from the areas will be reduced.)  

Generally Must Be in Sterile Sections

Generally the airports must also assure that, where possible, relief areas are to be in sterile sections of airports. Acknowledging, however, that the Transportation Security Administration may, on occasion, prohibit a relief area in the sterile section of a particular terminal, the Department states the following:

“Recognizing that the TSA may prohibit a particular airport from locating a relief area in the sterile area of a terminal, the rule provides airports with an exception to this requirement if TSA prohibits a particular airport from locating a relief area in the sterile area of a terminal for security-related reasons. The Department also realizes that, based on an airport’s configuration, a relief area in the non-sterile area of an airport may be more desirable to relief area users. As such, the Department is allowing airports the option of placing a relief area in a location other than the sterile area of a terminal if a service animal training organization, the airport, and the carriers in the terminal in which the relief area will be located agree that a relief area would be better placed outside the terminal’s sterile area instead of inside the sterile area. The airport must, however, document and retain a record of this agreement.”

Thus, a relief area must be inside the sterile area of the terminal unless either (1) the TSA says it cannot be, or (2) a service animal training organization agrees that it would be better located outside the sterile area.  If the latter is the reason for putting it outside the sterile area, the airport must keep documentation of the service animal organization’s agreement to such a placement. 

How Many New Relief Areas Will Be Coming?

The number of relief areas at an airport will vary depending on the number of terminals at the airport.  Large hubs, according to the Department, average about seven terminals, medium hubs about five, small hubs about three, and non-hubs usually one.  Of the 387 airports in the U.S., 29 are large hubs, 35 are medium hubs, 74 are small hubs, and 249 are non-hubs that still have more than 10,000 passenger enplanements per year.  A total of about 849 terminals will have to have service animal relief areas under the new rule, though some already have relief areas that will satisfy the requirements.  The rest have one year to comply.  The Department estimates the overall cost for compliance will be about $88.1 million over 20 years, which includes the cost of construction and maintenance as well as the rent foregone for spaces that might otherwise hold stores and restaurants.  Airports will obviously look for ways to keep relief areas away from businesses that might be affected by the smells, or the thought, of a nearby relief area.

The Department decided not to require relief area information on airport websites, airport maps, or signage throughout the airport.  These decisions are somewhat mystifying since it is easy to bury information in a website, airport maps have lots of other information, and it is not clear how people with service animals will find the relief areas without the signage.  Hopefully most airports will want service animal users to find relief areas as quickly as possible, particularly after long flights, and will put signs up in any case.  The most the Department is willing to say at the moment is that if “there is confusion about the location of service animal relief areas at U.S. airports,” the issue will be revisited.


The Department is to be commended for not backing down on the issues of relief areas in each terminal, and putting them inside sterile areas wherever possible.  The willingness of the Department not to issue rules on website and signage could lead to problems, but given the interest the airports will have in getting passengers with animals to relief areas as efficiently as possible, there will hopefully be no need for such requirements. (I personally expect there will be problems, but hope my defective crystal ball will once again be wrong.)  The major guide and service dog organizations will be involved when airports seek to put relief areas outside of sterile areas and will have ample occasion to represent their members on such issues.  

Thanks to Leigh Anne Novak, Veronica Morris, and Brad Morris, for reviewing a draft of this blog. 

Appendix: Final Regulation
The final rule on service animal relief areas reads as follows:

49 CFR 27.71. Airport Facilities.

(h) Service animal relief areas. Each airport with 10,000 or more annual enplanements shall cooperate with airlines that own, lease, or control terminal facilities at that airport to provide wheelchair accessible animal relief areas for service animals that accompany passengers departing, connecting, or arriving at the airport subject to the following requirements:

(1) Airports must consult with one or more service animal training organizations regarding the design, dimensions, materials and maintenance of service animal relief areas;
(2) Airports must establish at least one relief area in each airport terminal;
(3) Airports must establish the relief area required by paragrah (h)(2) of this section in the sterile area of each airport terminal unless:

(i) The Transportation Security Administration prohibits the airport from locating a relief area in the sterile area, or
(ii) A service animal training organization, the airport, and the carriers in the terminal in which the relief area will be located agree that a relief area would be better placed outside the terminal’s sterile area. In that event, the airport must retain documentation evidencing the recommendation that the relief area be located outside of the sterile area; and

(4) To the extent airports have established service animal relief areas prior to the effective date of this paragraph:

(i) Airports that have not consulted with a service animal training organization shall consult with one or more such organizations regarding the sufficiency of all existing service animal relief areas,
(ii) Airports shall meet the requirements of this section August 4, 2016. 

Department of Transportation, RIN 2105-AD91, Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance (U.S. Airports).  Final Rule.  80 Fed. Reg. 46508 (August 5, 2015).

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