The Department of Transportation (“DOT”) recently issued updated guidance regarding the rights of Emotional Support Animals (“ESAs”) and their handlers on flights. The DOT’s long-awaited “Guidance on Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel” gives helpful information for ESA handlers on how the rules under the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”) may apply to them.
The rules governing ESAs under the ACAA were sometimes subject to debate and interpreted differently by those in the airline industry and travelers. The DOT’s guidance gives greater clarity to ESA owners on what their rights are when it comes to flying with an emotional support animal.
Summary of 2019 Airline ESA Guidance
1. 48 Hour Advance Notice
- Airlines may require ESA owners to provide up to 48 hours’ advance notice of flying with an ESA, and may also require handlers to appear in the lobby for processing of ESA documentation up to one hour prior to the check-in time for the general public. Service dog handlers are exempt from this policy.
- It’s good practice for ESA owners to notify their airlines at least 48 hours before their flight so they do not run into any last minute surprises.
2. Airlines are required to accept your ESA Letter
- American Airlines and other airlines can no longer deny your ESA letter and require their own form be used instead. Airlines may not reject documentation provided by an ESA handler from a licensed mental health professional that meets all of the criteria under the ACAA.
- Airlines may ask ESA handlers to present additional documentation related to the animal’s vaccination, training, or behavior.
- If you need an airline approved ESA letter, you may request this from your therapist. If you do not have a therapist, you can reach out to ESA Doctors for support. They will help pair you with a compassionate Licensed Mental Health Professional who understands the regulations regarding ESAs, including the Air Carrier Access Act, and the importance of ESAs.
3. Dogs, Cats, and Mini-horses are allowed
- Airlines are required to accept your Emotional Support Animal if the animal is a dog, cat or miniature horse.
- Airlines can deny transport to unusual animals including snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders. However, airlines cannot categorically refuse to transport other animals or species of animals.
4. Multiple Emotional Support Animals
- The DOT has stated that it is focusing its efforts on ensuring that airlines are not restricting passengers from traveling with one ESA and a total of three service animals if needed.
- Airlines may not impose categorical restrictions on the total number of service animals to be transported in the aircraft cabin. This means that if ten qualified individuals with a disability each need to bring an ESA, then the airline must accept all ten ESAs, so long as the ESAs are sufficiently trained to behave in a public setting.
5. Lobby Verification
- Airlines can require passengers with ESAs to present documentation in the lobby/ticket counter area, rather than the gate/sterile area.
6. Containment of ESAs on Flights
- Airlines may impose reasonable and appropriate restrictions to control the movement of ESAs in the cabin.
- Such restrictions may include requiring, where appropriate for the animal’s size, that the animal be placed in a pet carrier, the animal stay on the floor at the passenger’s feet, or requiring the animal to be on a leash or tether.
- The DOT will consider containment issues for ESAs on a case-by-case basis, with a focus on reasonableness. Factors include the size and species of the animal, the right of other passengers to enjoy their own foot space, and the continued ability of the animal to provide emotional support while being restrained or kept in a pet carrier.
7. Flight Length Restriction
- Airlines may not categorically restrict ESAs on flights scheduled to last 8 hours or more. On flights scheduled to last 8 hours or more, airlines may ask for 48 hours’ advance notice, early check-in, and documentation that the ESA will not need to relieve itself on the flight or that it can do so in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue on the flight.
8. No Breed Bans, this means pit bulls too!
- Airlines cannot ban an animal solely because it is a certain breed (including pit bulls).
- Airlines are allowed to deny transport to an animal if, among other things, it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. However, the DOT has stated that there is no evidence that an animal poses a threat simply because of its breed.
9. No Categorical Weight Limitations for your ESA
- Airlines may not impose a categorical restriction on ESAs over a certain weight. For example, one airline recently banned all ESAs over 65 pounds, but such a ban is no longer allowed.
- The ACAA does allow airlines to determine “whether the animal is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin….” Under this rule, an animal may be excluded from the cabin if it is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the aircraft. However, categorical weight bans are not allowed.
Department of Transportation Defends ESA Rights for Travelers
The DOT’s statement gives much needed guidance on the ability of passengers to fly with their ESAs. The new guidance affirms and clarifies certain rights that ESA owners have. Flying with your ESA on any airline is free of charge if you qualify for an ESA letter. You are required to be a responsible ESA handler and give the airline advanced notice. If you feel that you have a mental health or emotional issue that would benefit from your pet’s love and support and are interested in seeing if you qualify for an ESA letter, ESADoctors.com can be a wonderful resource for you.
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