The Department of Transportation announced a final rule on Dec. 2 that could change how airlines treat service animals, emotional support animals, and pets

By Kelli Bender
December 02, 2020 04:16 PM
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dog on plane
Credit: Getty

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are getting their wings clipped when it comes to air travel.

On Dec. 2, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it is revising its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in regards to the transportation of service animals by air, in an effort to "ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system."

As part of the DOT's "final rule on traveling by air with service animals," the department has given airlines permission to strip emotional support animals (ESAs) of the service animal treatment, allowing airlines to treat ESAs as pets instead. Consider as pets, ESAs would not be guaranteed a spot in the cabin with their owner, even with a note from a doctor.  If airlines choose to treat ESAs as pets, effectively banning ESAs, the ESA's owner would have to buy a ticket for their animal to fly and would have to follow the airline's rules on pets flying in the cabin, which include size, breed, and capacity restrictions.

No airlines have announced changes to their emotional support animal policies since DOT announced its final rule, but the DOT's decision paves the way for airlines to prohibit ESAs by treating all ESAs as pets instead. The DOT's announcement comes after years of high-flying drama between emotional support animals and airlines, including peacocks trying to board planes, animal attacks, and some unusual seatmates for passengers.

Along with the ESA change, the DOT announced several other revisions that directly affect those flying with service animals. According to the DOT's release on the changes, only "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability" can be considered a service animal —  a title that allows them to board a plane with their owner free of charge, regardless of breed, as long as the dog can fit in the handler's foot space on the aircraft. Service animals can still be refused transportation if they exhibit aggressive behavior or pose a direct threat to others.

The Humane Society of the United States applauded the DOT for finalizing the rule that airlines cannot discriminate against service animals based on breeds, since some airlines have tried to ban pit bulls from flying at all, even as service animals.

"By finalizing a rule ending breed discrimination by airlines today, the Department of Transportation has taken a huge step toward correcting the historic wrongs perpetrated against a group of dogs based simply on how they look. We applaud the agency for doing the right thing, both by the animals and by the people who love and rely on them, whether in their travel or their day-to-day lives," Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, wrote in a joint blog post today.

Additionally, airlines are required to treat psychiatric service animals, like those who assist humans suffering from PTSD, the same as service animals trained to assist those with physical health issues.

The DOT's revisions also allow airlines to put certain limits on service animals and their handlers. Under the new rule, a single handler is limited to two service animals per flight. Under the new changes, airlines will also be allowed to require individuals traveling with a service animal to provide them with DOT service animal form(s) to vouch for the service animal's training and good behavior.

A full list of the DOT's revisions can be found on their website. The department noted in its release that the changes "will be effective 30 days after the date of publication in the Federal Register."