On December 2nd, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it had finalized rules that will allow airlines to treat emotional support animals as ordinary pets. Passengers who own service dogs will still be able to board flights free of charge, as long as they complete newly adopted federal forms.
These new rules will take effect 30 days from the date they are officially published in the Federal Register. This means that the rules may take effect as soon as January 2021, but airlines will still be required to accommodate emotional support animals throughout at least January 9th, 2021.
In this article, we will discuss what this means in practical terms for ESA owners, the future of ESAs on flights and the implications for owners of service dogs.
- What is changing because of these new rules?
- Am I currently able to travel with my ESA?
- What happens after the new DOT rules go into effect?
- What if I have a service dog?
- Is an emotional support animal a service dog?
- What does the future hold for emotional support animals?
1. What is changing because of these new rules?
Under the existing rules for ESAs on flights, airlines must accommodate emotional support animals if the passenger has documentation from their licensed mental health professional. Under the current rules, passengers can board the airplane cabin with their ESA free of charge. Owners of emotional support animals have enjoyed these rights for many years, and the new rules represent a major departure from the status quo.
As a result of the new rules, airlines are no longer legally required to make accommodations for emotional support animals. Airlines can choose to treat emotional support animals as regular pets, in which case they would be subject to the same fees and restrictions pets are. Unfortunately for ESA owners, that could be mean paying hefty fees for the right to board with their ESA, or worse yet, relegating their ESA to cargo, which is not an option for many ESA owners.
One potential source of hope for ESA owners is that these new rules are permissive, meaning they give airlines the ability to categorize ESAs as pets but does not mandate that they do so. That means airlines will have to make a decision when the new rules go into effect regarding how they will treat emotional support animals. An airline may voluntarily choose to continue recognizing emotional support animals, change their procedures, or prohibit ESAs entirely. We will see how various airlines adapt to these new legal developments in the coming months.
One potential source of hope for ESA owners is that these new rules are permissive, meaning they give airlines the ability to categorize ESAs as pets but does not mandate that they do so.
2. Am I currently able to travel with my ESA?
The new rules will not go into effect until 30 days after they are officially published in the Federal Register. That means they could perhaps go into effect sometime in January of 2021. For ESA owners traveling in December, the current rules will apply, and airlines are still be required to accommodate emotional support animals under the old procedures.
If you plan to fly in December with your ESA, make sure to contact the airline and submit any required documents and forms at least 48 hours before your departure.
3. What happens after the new DOT rules go into effect?
After the rules go into effect sometime in 2021, airlines will decide if and how they will accept emotional support animals. Some airlines may continue to accept ESAs or accept them under a different procedure. Other airlines may choose to categorize ESAs as pets.
If you are an ESA owner with plans to fly in 2021 with your ESA, there is, unfortunately, some uncertainty at the moment. It’s best to regularly check with your airline to see their policies regarding ESAs and if any rule changes they have implemented. If your ESA is able to fly with you under the airline’s procedures for normal pets, your ESA will be subject to the same fees and restrictions that apply to pets.
4. What if I have a service dog?
Under the DOT’s new rules, airlines must still accommodate service dogs, including psychiatric service dogs. The new rules align the service animal definition with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ACA). A service animal must be a dog, regardless of breed, that is individually trained to work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The disability can include physical, sensory, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.
Similar to the ADA, the new rules allow airlines to limit service animals to just dogs. Under the new rules, airlines can require passengers with service dogs to fill out and submit the DOT’s new “Service Animal Air Transportation Form” (Transport Form). For flights longer than eight hours, airlines may also request that passengers submit the DOT’s “Service Animal Relief Attestation” (Relief Form).
In the Transport Form, service dog handlers must make a signed attestation regarding their service dog’s good behavior and training. The Relief Form requires service dog handlers to attest that either:
- their service dog will not need to relieve itself on the flight; or
- the animal can relieve itself on the flight in a way that does not pose a health or sanitation issue (along with a description of that method).
Unlike the documentation requirements for ESAs that are being phased out, these are self-certifying documents. Some commenters have pointed out that these forms may have the unintended consequence of leading to more fraud instead of preventing it, since there is no requirement for the involvement of a licensed mental health professional or another third party medical professional in the process.
5. Is an emotional support animal a service dog?
An emotional support animal is not the same thing as a service dog. The key difference is that a service dog must be trained to perform tasks relating to the handler’s disability. Emotional support animals do not require any special training; they provide support for mental health issues through their presence and companionship.
Service dogs are employed to perform a number of tasks, including things like reminding their handler to take medication, reorienting and grounding the handler to the current time and place when struggling with a post-traumatic stress episode, or providing tactile support during a panic attack. Under the DOT’s new rules, the passenger must attest that their service dog is appropriately trained to assist with their disability.
6. What does the future hold for emotional support animals?
When the DOT initially proposed its new rules, it received comments from thousands of individuals and organizations in support of preserving rights for emotional support animal owners. One individual wrote the DOT to state the following: “ESAs like mine are prescribed by