Traveling with animals is never easy. It makes the logistics more complicated, and there’s always the possibility that they might react badly to unfamiliar environments. Still, for the right animal it’s worth the hassle. In some cases, the support animal is actually necessary for travel to be possible; service animals and emotional support animals have been used for decades by people who, for one reason or another, aren’t able to do certain things by themselves. Support pets can be a tremendous help for certain travelers on long flights.
In the beginning of December this year, the Department of Transportation announced that new regulations regarding service animals and ESAs would soon take effect. There’s no definite start date yet, but it’ll be 30 days after the changes are entered into the Federal Register, probably sometime early in 2021.
The biggest change to the regulations pertains to the DOT’s definition of what constitutes a “service animal”. Previously, the definition was broad enough to include emotional support animals; once the new rules take effect, the definition will be more in line with the one found in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA specifies that a service animal is a dog (or, in some cases, a miniature horse) that’s been trained to mitigate the effects of a physical, intellectual, psychiatric, or sensory disability. The DOT has mainly stuck with this definition, but excludes miniature horses. More notably, it also excludes emotional support animals, since ESAs don’t receive the same level of training that service animals do. In fact, an ESA doesn’t need any training at all to be able to do its job; all it needs is to be compatible with the owner.
According to the National Service Animal Registry, emotional support animals and their owners are the ones most affected by the regulation changes, but people with service animals will have some new rules to follow as well. They still won’t have to pay any animal-related fees to bring their dog onboard, but they will have to make sure that the dog is harnessed, and that it can lie comfortably under a seat or sit on the owner’s lap. Attempts have been made by airlines to restrict certain dog breeds in the past, but this effectively rules out any of the larger dog breeds. There’s also a limit for how many service animals one person can bring onto the plane – two per person. As for document requirements, service dogs that help with psychiatric disorders won’t need a letter issued by a mental healthcare provider. They’ll need the same two documents from the DOT as other service dogs, the US Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form, and the US Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation.
For owners of service animals, the new rules might not seem that drastic; but for anyone with an ESA, this could seem pretty harsh. Anyone who needs an emotional support animal for everyday life will probably need it to get on a plane, so it’s no surprise that ESA advocates and owners have been vocal in their disapproval of the changes. Even before they were confirmed, the DOT announced that changes were upcoming and more than 15,000 comments were published with peoples’ opinions and reactions. Over 6,000 of these comments were in support of allowing ESAs onto planes without additional fees or restraints, saying that for some people, these animals were the only thing making it possible for them to function.
That’s just one side of the coin, though. On the other side, we find the airline passengers and staff who have dealt with untrained and uncrated animals that barked, chirped, or meowed for hours on end, relieved themselves without warning, or bit other passengers. Some of these incidents actually resulted in lawsuits against the airline for allowing these animals to board without the usual restraints. As it happens, not all of these animals were genuine ESAs, but they were all allowed onto the plane because airline staff believed they were ESAs.
Just like “emotional support animal” has a pretty loose definition, the requirements for letting one onto a plane are also minimal. The owner just has to ask a mental health professional for a letter which identifies the animal as necessary for emotional support – there aren’t any additional forms regarding the training or purpose of the animal. With the documentation requirements being so lenient, it’s no surprise that enterprising individuals started setting up websites where pet owners could purchase faked psychiatrist’s letters for their pets. The staff at every airline then had to deal with letters they knew couldn’t all be real, and an A-to-Z assortment of animal species, from rodents to peacocks. Most airlines’ policies weren’t very specific about which species weren’t allowed onto planes, so this resulted in all kinds of animals being let on which probably shouldn’t have been.
In response to these new regulations, a lot of people are talking about the “ban” on ESAs from airplanes. While this may feel like a disaster for ESA owners, it’s not quite that bad; there could just be a lot more hoops to jump through. For some people, this will mean that they can still take their ESA onto the plane with them, but it will have to be in a crate; for others, the species of their ESA may exclude it from plane travel altogether. Or, the animal might be allowed onto the plane, but it would have to travel in the cargo hold instead of the passenger area. There will also be fees to pay since the updated regulations consider ESAs to be in the same category as ordinary pets; the fee could be anywhere from $75 to over $175 each way, depending on the airline.
The people involved in the decision-making process aren’t saying that ESAs aren’t vital to their owners; they’re just saying that something had to be done about the sheer numbers of animals that were boarding planes without restraints, and this is how they decided to fix it. Maybe in the future a different solution will be implemented, but the way things look now, the upcoming changes will probably last for quite some time.
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