New Regulations in 2021 For Support Animals on Planes
Changes are on the horizon for anyone with an emotional support animal. The exact date hasn’t been announced yet, but it’s likely that the DOT’s new rules about ESAs on planes will take effect in the first couple months of 2021. The main change is that emotional support animals won’t be able to board flights for free, or without restraints like a leash or a crate. Under the current rules, which have been in effect for quite a few years, ESAs are essentially in the same category as service animals – they’re considered necessary for their owner’s well-being, so until now both ESAs and service animals have enjoyed the same privileges from airlines.
The problem is, the important work that ESAs do for their owners isn’t the only thing that the DOT has to take into consideration. Millions of people every year have to fly in the same planes as animals that are often unruly, disruptive, or even overtly aggressive to anyone besides their owner. Because of the laws that exempted these animals from being restrained, people had to deal with incidents of animals relieving themselves in the passenger area, incessant barking, or even being bitten on a few occasions. Without discounting the role that an ESA plays in its owner’s life, airlines and their passengers were in agreement that the situation had to change.
At the center of the problem is the vagueness of the definition of an “emotional support animal”. A lot of ESAs are cats or dogs, but they could also be pigs, exotic birds, or rodents. For an animal to be allowed onto a plane as an ESA, all the owner really has to do is show a letter, written in the official letterhead of their psychiatrist or mental healthcare provider, saying that this person’s animal is necessary for the mitigation of certain harmful symptoms or behaviors. Since ESAs don’t necessarily have to receive training of any kind to be able to support their owners, many of them simply don’t have any training at all. There’s no guarantee that a support animal won’t get onto a plane and start panicking because it’s in a small space with hundreds of strangers. Even if an animal doesn’t freak out, in most cases it won’t know any better than to relieve itself at its own convenience.
To be fair, many of these undisciplined animals weren’t actually ESAs from legit companies like the National Service Animal Registry – instead they were ordinary pets masquerading as support animals. For a fraction of the price that it would cost to bring a pet onto a plane, it was possible to get a fake psychiatrist’s letter identifying a pet as a support animal. Since that just about guaranteed that no questions would be asked, this was an easy loophole for pet owners to exploit.
Whatever the true identity of these animals, though, it was clear that they were causing far too many problems for other passengers. Given the hazy definition of what an ESA is and isn’t, it seems that simply requiring better documentation wasn’t really an option. There’s no way to prove that an animal is appropriately trained for airplane travel, and without alternative qualifications for ESAs, the choice becomes whether or not to allow support animals to travel with the same treatment as service animals.
With the new regulations, any animal that accompanies its handler onto a plane without extra fees or a crate has to be a service animal. The Americans with Disabilities Act is pretty specific about the definition of a service animal, and the DOT is using a very similar definition for the updated rules; the main difference is that species besides dogs, such as miniature horses, are excluded. Interestingly, these rules don’t specify that the animal should be trained to behave itself around other people, but that it should be trained to assist its handler with their particular disability or condition. If you think about it though, this requirement still has the desired effect. Since service animals are usually very well-trained in their specific field, the assumption is that they’ll also know how to behave in in airplane. Many service animals know not to sniff or bark at other people as a part of what they do for their handlers; they also tend to be house-trained from an early age.
This new requirement means that airline employees won’t have to approve support animals with documents that they know are probably fake, or second-guess the definition of a “support animal” when someone tries to bring a fully grown snake on board. In fact, airline staff won’t have to go over letters from mental health professionals at all; the current rules say that service animals who help individuals with a psychiatric condition need a letter, but the updated regulations will only require two documents from the DOT. One document states that the animal is trained to help its owner with a specific task related to a disability, and the other says that the animal has received training on the appropriate methods for relieving itself on a plane.
Even though the biggest changes pertain to ESAs, there will be some adjustments for handlers of service animals too. Since the DOT definition of a service animal really only applies to dogs, anyone with a miniature horse or other species won’t be allowed to board without the usual restrictions. Service dogs will be required to use a harness, but not a crate; they’ll also have to be small enough to lie under the seat, or sit in their owner’s lap. In cases where someone has multiple service dogs, they’ll only be allowed to bring two of them onto the plane.
This solution definitely fixes the problem of too many unrestrained animals on planes, but most ESA owners and advocates say that it’s several steps too far. There’s no telling how long these rules will last, but in the meantime, keep in mind that this is far from an absolute ban on ESAs. Most support animals will still be allowed onto planes, it’ll just take a bit more money and planning.