DOT Publishes New Policies for Service Animals on Planes

For almost two decades, the Department of Transportation has used a definition of “service animal” that’s vague enough to include emotional support animals in the mix. As a result, more and more animals of various descriptions have been brought onto planes as ESAs. Unfortunately for owners of support animals, the definition was updated to be much more specific – and it now excludes all emotional support animals. 

Why did the rules need to be updated? Doesn’t this mean that many people won’t be able to travel by plane anymore, now that they can’t bring their ESA along with them? 

For airline passengers and staff, the new rules were a long time coming. Service animals didn’t usually cause problems, but emotional support animals had been the source of countless disturbances on airplanes. Based on the opinions of airline staff, three main factors were causing the problems:

1. Any animal can be an ESA – they don’t have to belong to a particular species, so animals of all kinds were brought onto planes.

The DOT regulations were pretty hazy regarding which species were allowed, and airline policies weren’t much clearer. As a result, airline staff had to essentially guess whether or not obscure and exotic animals should be allowed to board. One incident involved a woman trying to bring her peacock onto a plane. She was denied, but other animals have regularly been allowed onto planes, including dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, various kinds of rodents, and several different bird species. Some people even try to bring on spiders or insects as support animals. If the policy of a particular airline isn’t clear on which species are allowed and which aren’t, that puts the burden on the staff members to make the call. With all the unusual animals allowed onto planes, a lot of passengers complained that certain species made them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. 

2. ESAs don’t have to receive any specific training in order to do their jobs, so there’s no guarantee that they’ll know how to act appropriately around other people.

This is one of the key differences between an ESA and a service animal. Where service animals have to fulfill a specific and often complicated task for their owners, emotional support animals have a more generalized purpose. Some of them are trained, but most of them fulfill their purpose as an ESA just by physically being close to their owners. There’s no need for extra training or skills in most situations, but bringing an animal onto a plane without either training or restraints is a pretty big curveball for everyone involved, including the support animal. Due to this particular factor, there have been cases of animals relieving themselves in passenger areas and being aggressive or noisy. There have even been a few incidents in which passengers were bitten; no wonder airlines have had to settle ESA-related lawsuits. 

3. The requirements for ESAs to board a plane were so lenient that people ended up exploiting them to bring their pets on board with faked documents.

This is partly why ESA owners aren’t happy about the new rules – they have to take responsibility for a problem that isn’t entirely their fault. At the heart of the issue is the relatively loose definition of an ESA. Since almost any species can be called an ESA as long as a mental health practitioner prescribes it, it’s hard to draw the line between a legitimate support animal and a pet with faked documents. Airline personnel reviewing the pet and their papers might be able to recognize all the signs of a fraudulent ESA, but there’s no way to disprove it. As a result, tens of thousands more undisciplined pets were let onto planes each year. 

In response, the DOT made decisive changes to their definition of a “service animal”.

Starting in January 2021, the DOT’s definition will be a lot closer to the one used by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The focus will now be on the training of the animal, rather than its purpose; the regulations specify that a service animal has to be trained specifically to help with the effects of specific psychological, intellectual, or physical disabilities. The new rules also specify that a “service animal” can only be a dog; miniature horses, which the ADA includes, will not be allowed onto planes. 

This eliminates a lot of gray areas, but it also creates what seems like an unfair distinction between certain animals. For example, one person with PTSD could have a service animal that’s been trained to guide them away from a flashback, and another person could have an emotional support animal that can bring them out of an episode simply because they respond empathetically when their owner is in distress. Both of these animals perform essentially the same function, but one is trained, and the other is not. With air travel, this training makes all the difference. 

ESA owners aren’t the only ones with adjustments to make, though; owners of service dogs will also have new rules. There’s now a limit of two animals per person, and the dog has to wear a harness unless it would keep them from their job. While certain breeds aren’t prohibited, certain sizes are – the dog has to be able to lie comfortably under a seat or sit on its owner’s lap. 

Quite a few sensationalist headlines have been published that talk about the “ban” on ESAs. The National Service Animal Registry says the new regulations are definitely a big step backward, but they’re far from a ban; emotional support animals will just be required to follow the same regulations as ordinary pets. Some of the smaller animals may still be able to travel inside the plane, depending on the airline, while other species may be excluded altogether. For anyone planning on traveling with an ESA in the near future, it’s best to call ahead and confirm with the airline; along with DOT regulations, airline policies will probably be changing as well. Even if this feels like an overreaction, it’s important to remember that there’s always room for change in the future. 

 

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