Airline & Aviation News

Emotional Support Animals No Longer Categorized As Service Animals

Last updated: January 03,2021
Originally Published: December 21,2020
by Jestan Mendame

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The U.S Department of Transportation has issued policy changes to the existing Air Carrier Access Act which will affect passengers who are flying with emotional support animals. The announcement was made on December 2 but the changes might be implemented early in 2021.

For those of you that don’t know, the Air Carrier Access Act was enacted to prevent the discrimination of persons with disabilities with regards to air travel. This act also covers all the guidelines and provisions when flying with emotional support animals or service animals.

In the recent change, the DOT stated that emotional support animals won’t be put under the same category as service animals anymore. The changes will focus on determining the guidelines on what constitutes a service animal and the requirements needed for passengers to be able to bring their animals with them.

Policy Changes On Emotional Support Animals

First of all, it’s important to know the difference between emotional support animals and service animals.

Emotional support animals provide relief or comfort for people with disabilities. Under US law, emotional support animals can be any animal as long as it provides emotional support to the owner.

Service animals on the other hand are trained to perform a specific task that will aid a physically impaired person to go about his daily activities such as helping a blind person walk. Service animals are also restricted to only a select number of animal species but dogs are the most common types of service animals.

Revising The Air Carrier Access Act

Emotional support animals and service animals were placed in the same category before but the U.S. DOT revised the ACA act’s definition of a service animal.

According to a press release, a service animal is “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” The separation of the two means that you’d have to submit different requirements or pay different fees depending on the category you’re applying for your animal.

The new rule will change the entire landscape of air travel for animals in the U.S. since airlines are currently prohibited from refusing emotional support animals regardless of species and limiting the number of allowed support animals per passenger.

A lot of airlines are actually happy with this new rule since a lot of passengers have been gaming the system by trying to pass off their pets as emotional support animals or to avoid extra airline fees.

Are All Airlines Affected By The New ESA Rule?

Airlines can set their own policies as long as it adheres to the new rules set by the U.S. DOT. All flyers who are accompanied by a service animal must fill up a form 48 hours prior to their travel date. The service animal must also fit in the passenger’s foot space in the plane, which is an issue for travelers who have bigger service animals.

However, a lot of people are actually in favor of this move because the DOT got more than 15,000 comments on the proposed rulemaking. The DOT also got the support of veterans and disability groups that emotional support animals must be trained if they are to fly together with their owners.

What Are The Policies Of Major Airlines?

As mentioned, different airlines will have varying policies as long as they follow DOT standards, and it appears that the five major U.S. carriers have already adopted the new guidelines.

United Airlines

United allows both service animals and emotional support animals on their aircraft but each category has different requirements for a passenger to bring his or her animal.

Service Animals

These animals should assist with visual limitations, seizures, deafness, and mobility limitations. Cats and dogs are the commonly accepted species although other species are allowed as long as they comply with DOT regulations. The animal must also at least be 4 months old to be accepted at all United aircraft.

Emotional Support Animals

United defines emotional support animals as animals who provide emotional and psychiatric support for people with disabilities. However, the animals are not required to perform a specific task that directly helps the person’s disability.

Passengers should provide a letter from a medical professional to verify their condition and also updated veterinary health records of their animal. The number of emotional support animals per passenger is also limited to one only.

If a passenger fails to provide the necessary documents, the animal is still allowed to board the aircraft but it will be considered as a pet, and pet fees will apply.

Just remember that you need all three forms before they can fly with their animals:

  • Medical/Mental Health Professional Form,
  • Veterinary Health Form
  • Passenger Confirmation of Liability and Emotional Support/Psychiatric Service Animal Behavior Form

Also, here’s a quick rundown of the United’s guidelines with regards to emotional support animals and service animals:

  • The animal must sit in the floor space that’s in front of the owner’s seat.
  • The animal must not extend into the aisles.
  • The animal must be well-behaved, well-trained, and should follow directions from its owner.
  • Passengers who are traveling with an animal in the cabin must bring an up-to-date copy of the animals’ vaccination certificate. Animals who haven’t reached the 30-day rabies vaccination period are not allowed to travel as well.
  • More documents might be required if you’re traveling to international destinations.
  • Passengers are allowed to bring an in-cabin kennel for smaller animal breeds as long as the kennel dimensions meet stowage guidelines.

If you’re not able to comply with the requirements, you can still fly with your animals but they will be considered as pets and you need to purchase an extra ticket of $125 (one for each way) and pay for other pet fees.

American Airlines

Service animals and emotional support animals may fly at American Airlines for free if they are able to meet the requirements provided below.

Emotional Support Animals

American Airlines allows emotional support animals as long as they provide emotional and psychiatric support to their owners. However, advance notice is required and certain requirements must be met before you can take your animal companion with you to the cabin.

Passengers must comply and submit all these three requirements before they can fly with their animals:

  • Medical / Mental Health Professional Form
  • Veterinary Health Form, or vaccination record with current rabies vaccination information
  • Confirmation of Animal Behavior Form

Advance notices is required for emotional support animals and all forms must be submitted to the Special Assistance Desk at least 48 hours before departure.

Service animals

American Airlines acknowledges service animals as animals who assist people with life functions such as walking, seeing, hearing, and other impairments.

Advance notice for service animals isn’t required but is encouraged by the airline. There are different requirements for different types of service animals and employees may ask a few questions prior to boarding.

Requirements

  • 1 emotional support / psychiatric service animal per person
  • Cats and dogs (trained miniature horse may be permitted as a service animal) are generally acceptable as service and support animals; any other animals must comply with the US Department of Transportation requirements for health and safety including documentation of the animal’s up to date vaccination records and may not cause significant cabin disruption
  • Animal must be 4 months or older
  • Animal must be clean and well-behaved
  • Animal must be able to fit at your feet, under your seat or in your lap (lap animals must be smaller than a 2-year old child)
  • Final approval for travel will not happen until you arrive at the airport and it is determined that the animal will safely fit at your feet.
  • If the animal is in a kennel, it must fit under the seat in front of you with the animal in it.

Animals should not be seated in an exit row and must not extend into the aisles. They shouldn’t occupy passenger seats and eat from tables too.

If your animal is too large or too heavy to be safely accommodated in the cabin, you may need to:

  • Rebook on a flight with more open seats
  • Buy a ticket for the animal
  • Transport the animal as a checked pet

Conclusion

The move isn’t the end for emotional support animals because it’s a real medical issue that needs to be addressed. However, the changes will surely impact a lot of passengers who have gotten used to the old rule.

But the rule does clear a lot of confusion between passengers and airline companies on what defines a service animal.

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