What to Expect for Plane Travel with ESAs in 2021
Change is in the air – literally. As of January 11, 2021, emotional support animals will have to comply with the standard requirements used for ordinary pets. Depending on the size and breed, that could mean getting either a crate or a leash; in any case, their owners will be paying the airline fees for flying with an animal.
Most people are calling this a “ban” for ESAs on planes. The technical version is that the Department of Transportation will not require airlines to allow these animals onto planes without leashes or fees. According to the National Service Animal Registry, given the general attitude of airlines towards ESAs, this is pretty much a ban.
The DOT’s new rules mainly affect ESAs, but owners of service animals will have to read up on their own requirements. To start with, “service animal” really just means “service dog” – miniature horses, which are occasionally used for tasks like pulling wheelchairs or providing guidance, won’t be allowed to board planes as service animals. Airlines only have to allow two service dogs per passenger, and both animals would have to fit within their owner’s personal space. Airlines have never been able to ban specific breeds of dogs (although they’ve tried), but they can deny access to dogs that are too big to fit anywhere except the aisle. Probably in response to thousands of passenger complaints about unrestrained animals, service dogs will also have to wear an approved harness or leash, unless this would prevent them from performing their responsibilities.
One of the few positive changes to come from the new rules is that flying with psychiatric service dogs won’t involve special paperwork – all service animals will need the same two forms from the DOT, as well as whatever health certifications the airline requires. One form, the “US Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation”, is an assurance from the service animal’s owner that their dog has been properly trained on how and when to relieve itself. The other form, the “US Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form”, states that the animal has received training to perform a specific task for its owner.
All of these changes – for ESAs and service dogs alike – tie together when you look at how the DOT has defined “service animals” over the years. Prior to January 2021, the definition included animals that gave emotional support. This is definitely broader than the typical definition, which focuses on the level of training that an animal has received. The DOT, on the other hand, wanted airlines to allow both ESAs and service animals onto planes. It was obvious that they were both essential to their owners; when the issue was being discussed, it was argued that ESAs shouldn’t be excluded just because they lacked official certification.
The decision was made, and for years the DOT prohibited airlines from excluding ESAs from planes, and from charging fees to their owners. If that were the whole story, the new rules would never have been necessary; obviously, that wasn’t the whole story.
There’s a reason why the DOT largely follows the standard definition of “service animal” now – it effectively rules out ESAs, because they don’t receive the kind of training that would qualify them as a service animal. In other words, the DOT changed the definition to reduce the number of untrained animals on airplanes. This was a direct response to passenger and airline complaints about the rise in ESA-related incidents on flights. Because ESAs are generally untrained and almost always unprepared for being stuck in a cramped space with strangers, things didn’t always end well. Sometimes the animals would start acting out – making irritating noises, snapping or biting, or running through the plane cabin. Sometimes they just didn’t know any better, as in the cases where the ESAs would relieve themselves at the airport or in the aisles.
There was also considerable frustration at all the different species that passengers would attempt to bring onboard as ESAs. Of course, there were the usual dogs and cats, but then there were also pigs, turkeys, talking parrots, monkeys, turtles…and that’s just the highlight reel. The DOT has a specific (and short) list of species that airlines aren’t required to accept – snakes, spiders, ferrets, reptiles, and rodents. Airlines can also refuse animals that would endanger passengers or animals that are so large they’d block passage through the aisles. In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly small portion of the animal kingdom; many times airline employees ended up just guessing at whether or not their specific airline’s policy would allow certain species.
To add to the confusion, a few geniuses figured out that the main document proving that an animal was an ESA was pretty easy to reproduce and sell online. It’s just a mental healthcare provider’s letter, which states that the animal accompanying its owner is an emotional support animal. Pet owners started catching on, and soon the number of ESAs on planes skyrocketed – just like the rising number of onboard incidents. The airlines knew that this was happening, but they couldn’t exactly tell the fake letters from the real ones; in fact, there wasn’t much they could do at all besides taking their complaints to the DOT.
It was pretty obvious that the problem was getting bad. In 2017, Delta Airlines recorded a quarter-million animals on their flights; by 2019, that number had doubled. It’s a tough call to make, really. On one side, there are the ESA owners – there’s a reason why they have an emotional support animal in the first place, and it’s a serious hardship (if not an impossibility) for them to travel without their animal companion. On the other side, there are the airlines and their millions of passengers who have had to deal with out-of-control animals, many of which weren’t even ESAs to begin with.
In the end, it looks like emotional support animals didn’t come out on top. Hopefully with more advocacy and better awareness of how important these animals are, public opinion will eventually turn around.