The year 2021 started with major news for ESA owners: as of January 11, 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) no longer requires airlines to accommodate emotional support animals. In the years prior to this rule change, all airlines were required by law to accommodate owners of ESAs with proper documentation from a licensed mental health professional. 

Here’s a brief summary:

Rule Change for Flying With an ESA ✈️

  • When did the rules last change? January 11, 2021.
  • What is the latest policy? Airlines are not legally required to honor ESA letters.
  • How can I get around this? Some ESAs can become PSDs with flying rights, but this only applies to dogs with special training.

This was a disheartening development for millions of ESA owners around the world and a setback for people suffering from invisible disabilities. There was early hope that some U.S. airlines would continue accepting ESAs on a voluntary basis, but most, if not all, airlines have discontinued their ESA programs. 

This is obviously an unwelcome development for ESA owners. If there is one silver lining in the DOT’s rule change, it’s for owners of psychiatric service dogs. The new DOT rules affirmed the right of passengers with psychiatric service dogs to continue boarding the cabin of flights free of charge. PSD owners who often suffer from the same mental health conditions as ESA owners continue to be protected by the DOT’s rules. 

This article will review which airlines still have programs to accept emotional support animals (ESAs). We will also discuss the rights of psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) on flights and let you know how you can work with a licensed mental health professional to qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog Letter.

All airlines flying in America are required to accept Psychiatric Service Dogs on flights.

To see if you qualify for a PSD, complete the questionnaire in the link below.

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Airlines Accepting Emotional Support Animals

A few disability-progressive and ESA-friendly international airlines still accept ESAs on flights, even though they are not legally obligated to do so. Please note however that most airlines no longer accept ESAs and airlines are rapidly changing their ESA policies. It seems likely that all airlines will eventually discontinue their ESA programs, whereas psychiatric service dogs will continue to be recognized. 

If you have travel plans with your ESA, you should always call ahead to confirm your airline’s current policy before booking. Also, ensure that you won’t have any issues on your return flight. If you have an extended stay, it’s entirely possible the airline could change its policies during that time.

General Requirements for ESAs

To fly with an emotional support animal on participating airlines, you will need an ESA letter from a licensed mental health professional. The LMHP will also need to fill out forms provided by the airline. Most airlines require that ESA documents be submitted at least 48 hours before departure. If you need an ESA letter or airline forms completed, one of the friendly licensed professionals that ESA Doctors work with can help.

Which Airlines are No Longer Accepting ESAs? 

U.S.-based airlines no longer accept emotional support animals as of March 1st, 2021. The following airlines will no longer accommodate emotional support animals:

Airlines of North America: 

International Airlines: 

  • Air China
  • Air New Zealand
  • All Nippon Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • China Eastern Airlines
  • China Southern Airlines
  • Emirates
  • Eva Air
  • Korean Air
  • Qatar Airways
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Singapore Airlines
  • KLM

Airlines that no longer recognize ESAs will treat your animal companion as a normal pet. Pets are subject to fees and the airline’s size, weight, and breed restrictions. Some pets are not allowed to fly in the cabin and can only travel in cargo. In addition, certain animals may be prohibited entirely from flights. 

These airlines have severely hampered many ESA owners’ ability to fly, either because the ESA owners can’t afford the fees (which can cost as much as $175 each way) or because their ESA is too large to board the cabin. Before booking any flight with your ESA, you should always call your airline or check their website to confirm whether they still recognize emotional support animals and their animal policies.

What about Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD)?

Owners of psychiatric service dogs still have the right to board flights free of charge. Many owners of emotional support animals have asked whether their ESA is also a psychiatric service dog. The answer is no—although it is possible in the right circumstances and with some effort to train an emotional support animal to become a PSD. 

The main difference between an ESA and a PSD is that a PSD must be individually trained to perform tasks related to the handler’s disability (for example, retrieving medication, providing pressure therapy during moments of crisis, helping the handler maintain daily routines, etc.).

In contrast, ESAs have no specific training requirements and alleviate symptoms of mental illness just through their presence. Also, unlike ESAs, which encompass a wide array of animals, only dogs can serve as psychiatric service animals.

Airlines Accepting Psychiatric Service Dogs

All airlines flying to and from the United States must allow psychiatric service dogs on their flights.

PSDs are allowed to board flights in the cabin free of charge as long as the passenger submits the DOT’s Service Animal Transportation Form in advance. On the form, the passenger must self-certify that their dog has been trained to perform tasks relating to a disability. PSD owners have a right to privacy and dignity: airlines are not allowed to ask what the passenger’s specific disability is, and they cannot require passengers to demonstrate the task their PSD has been trained to perform. The form also requires the name of the PSD’s trainer, which can be the owner — third-party training is not a requirement for PSDs. If you are interested in training your dog, this online training class may help. 

DOT Form - Service Animal Health Behavior Training Form - Download -- ESA DoctorsDownload the DOT Form – Service Animal Air Transportation Form (pdf) here.

It is technically possible for an emotional support dog to be trained to become a PSD if the handler can meet certain requirements. A PSD must not only be trained to perform tasks relating to the handler’s psychiatric condition but must also be well-behaved in public settings. For individuals interested in owning a psychiatric service dog or existing PSD owners who want additional documentation for peace of mind, ESA Doctors offers a PSD letter service. A licensed mental health professional will evaluate whether you have a disability that qualifies for a psychiatric service dog under the ADA and Air Carrier Access Act. If you qualify, the licensed professional will issue a signed PSD letter. You can get started with a PSD letter by clicking here.

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What Does the Future Hold for Assistance Animals and Air Travel?

The DOT’s rule changes were vehemently opposed by many disability advocacy groups and ESA owners throughout the country. The changes were a result of sustained lobbying efforts by airlines, who complained about the cost and inconvenience of allowing ESAs to board at no cost.

As mentioned, however, the new DOT rules are permissive and not mandatory. That means airlines can voluntarily allow emotional support animals, even though they are not legally obligated to do so. These airlines would undoubtedly enjoy an advantage with ESA customer loyalty. Nevertheless, most U.S. airlines have ended their ESA programs. 

There is also hope that with leadership change at the DOT, regulations regarding ESAs and other types of assistance animals will be reconsidered with a more favorable view towards the disabled. While they may have faced a setback for air travel, ESA owners still enjoy federal rights for housing, and individual states continue to enact additional protections for ESA owners. More individuals and therapists than ever are discovering the benefits of emotional support animals for mental health. The trend toward utilizing ESAs for this purpose is unlikely to slow down.  

For owners of psychiatric service dogs, the DOT’s rules confirmed their right to board flights with their animal companion. PSD owners are still protected by federal air travel law, and airlines must continue to accommodate passengers with valid psychiatric service dogs. Hopefully, in the future, ESA owners will win back the same rights.

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If you would like to work with a licensed therapist for a PSD Letter, ESA Doctors may be able to assist you.