FLYING WITH AN EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL
New DOT Rules for Emotional Support Animals:
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.
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 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.
Am I currently able to travel with my ESA?
No, ESA’s are not able to fly for free. See if you animal may be registered as a Psychiatric Service Dog, and continue traveling for free! Unlike Service Dogs, there are no specific training requirements for Psychiatric Service Dogs.
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.
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.
See if you animal may be registered as a Psychiatric Service Dog, and continue traveling for free! Unlike Service Dogs, there are no specific training requirements for Psychiatric Service Dogs.