MIAMI – The US Department of Transportation’s new rules on emotional support animals traveling aboard aircraft came into effect on January 1, 2021.

According to the Florida Statutes, a service animal must be a dog or miniature horse. To be clear, service animals are not emotional support animals (ESA). Service animals must be qualified to perform specific duties, such as guide dog, wheelchair mobility assistance, deaf owner warning dog, seizure alert, or other such duties. Everywhere the owner goes, service dogs must be allowed.

The major point made in the ruling in question is that only dogs, regardless of breed, specially trained to assist a passenger due to physical or mental disability, are allowed to fly as a service animal. Airlines may now consider all other animals, which previously could be considered as “emotional support” animals, as pets.

Summary of the Rule

The DOT’s summary of the rule “defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.

It allows airlines to recognize emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals, and permits airlines to limit the number of service animals that one passenger can bring onboard an aircraft to two service animals.

The final rule also allows airlines to require passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to complete and submit to the airline a form, developed by DOT, attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior, and certifying the animal’s good health.

For flight segments of eight hours or more, the rule allows airlines to require passengers to complete and submit a DOT form attesting that the animal has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner.

In addition, this final rule allows airlines to require a service animal user to provide these forms up to 48 hours in advance of the date of travel if the passenger made the reservation prior to that time.

This final rule also better ensures the safety of passengers and crewmembers by allowing carriers to require that service animals are harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered onboard an aircraft. It includes requirements that would address the safe transport of large service animals in the aircraft cabin.

Further, it specifies the circumstances under which the airline can charge the user of a service animal for damage caused by the service animal and addresses the responsibilities of code-share partners.

By Jami430 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Some Controversy Seen in Rule

Some, however, see the ruling as perpetuating discrimination against those who need physical and emotional support. Licensed mental health professional Prairie Conlon said, “Basically what it comes down to is the animal’s training. They are saying an individual with PTSD who has a trained dog can have the animal with them during air travel.”

Conlon continued, “But if the individual has PTSD and doesn’t have the luxury of being gifted a service dog, or can’t afford the costs of obtaining a service dog which can run upwards of $50,000, then their PTSD doesn’t qualify/isn’t valid. That’s textbook discrimination on several levels.”

“I’m honestly astonished that they pushed this through. There are so many other options, such as tightening restrictions and requiring basic training, that could have solved the issue. So many news sources keep referring to the peacock incident of 2018 and of course they are saying good riddance, as am I.”

“But what they fail to realize is that that incident did cause a lot of change and those types of animals haven’t seen ESA status for air travel since then. Stop referring to the peacock. It’s not a valid argument anymore. Nobody is fighting for the peacock to be an ESA.”


Airline Responses

So far, only Southwest Airlines (WN) has stated that they will continue to accept ESA’s at no charge. Both Alaska Airlines (AS) and American Airlines (AA) have stated that they will no longer accept emotional support animals on flights. However, several airlines accept pets for a fee.

Those who have already booked flights this year with their ESA should look into each airline policy, as some will still be accepting ESA’s from existing reservations.

American Airlines Vice President Jessica Tyler told Travel Pulse, “Our team is motivated by a purpose to care for people on life’s journey, and we believe these policy changes will improve our ability to do just that. We’re confident this approach will enable us to better serve our customers, particularly those with disabilities who travel with service animals, and better protect our team members at the airport and on the aircraft.”

“Airlines are committed to promoting accessibility for passengers with disabilities and ensuring their safe travel,” said Airlines for America President and CEO Nicholas E. Calio in Forbes. “The Department of Transportation’s final rule will protect the traveling public and airline crewmembers from untrained animals in the cabin, as well as improve air travel accessibility for passengers with disabilities that travel with trained service dogs.”

As The Points Guy said, “Everyone is sick and tired of seeing pets masquerading as emotional support animals on a plane. Who can forget the dog that stole a seat in first class or the woman who tried to bring her emotional support squirrel on a plane?”

Featured image: Jack Marshall via Ethics Alarms.