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New DOT Regulations for ESAs on Planes

The US Department of Transportation’s new rules are getting plenty of attention, and it’s no wonder – they address an issue that’s been covered by news outlets of every type for years. The “ban on emotional support animals in planes” is the result of an issue that’s been developing for years. While both plane passengers and airlines are more than happy about the new rules, owners and emotional support animal advocates are most definitely not.

You may have heard about the varied and occasionally exotic species of emotional support animals that have been sighted on planes. You might even be aware of the infamous peacock that someone tried and failed to bring onto a plane as their ESA several years ago. Even if you haven’t, most people have either dealt with support animals during a flight, or are at least aware of what sometimes happens. 

So, what’s the story behind the change in regulations? It’s fun to read an article about a cute emotional support pig that the flight attendants all took pictures with, but that wasn’t the typical experience for most people. As any airline will testify, ESAs often displayed behavior that was anywhere between overexcited and aggressive. Passengers registered complaints with airlines about support animals that made too much noise, relieved themselves in the aisles mid-flight, and even bit or scratched them. 

It might surprise you to know that ESAs aren’t even entirely responsible for all the incidents that have been attributed to them. Even so, it’s hard to ignore the fact that untrained animals – which most ESAs are – simply don’t know what to do with themselves on airplanes. No one party is at fault here, it’s just that the DOT took one possible solution for a complicated problem, and when that didn’t work out, they implemented another solution.

When it comes to supposed “ESA-related incidents”, not all of the animals were actually support animals – many of them were regular pets, which their owners were bringing onto planes with a faked document. This was pretty easy for them to pull off, since ESAs aren’t formally recognized by any central organization in the first place. There’s no registry that they can join, so there’s no official documentation. 

Since ESA owners can’t get some kind of ID card to prove that their animals are there for emotional support, the DOT decided to require a certain type of letter instead. It had to be written by a mental healthcare professional, saying essentially “this person is my patient, I recommended that they get an emotional support animal, and this is what they got”. Since the most official part of the letter was the office letterhead at the top, several opportunists with editing skills started producing these letters themselves and selling them online. Pretty soon they were widely available, and much cheaper than the average cost of bringing a pet onto a flight. It wasn’t just cheaper – it was easier too. With no crate requirements and a much more lenient size limit, pet owners could bring the animal along and keep their eye on them the whole time. It definitely didn’t help that, around the same time, there were stories being circulated about pets dying while being transported in planes’ cargo holds. For one reason or another, faking ESA status for a pet just seemed like a good idea to a lot of people. 

While dogs and cats were common, other species made regular appearances. Not only did people see pigs, but also miniature horses, turkeys, kangaroos, monkeys, and much more. Any kind of animal – or even insect, in some cases – can offer emotional support, and what were their owners going to do if they had to board a plane? They couldn’t just say “Oh well, I picked an unusual species of ESA so I guess I’ll find another option”. Unfortunately, this put a lot of responsibility on airline staff – they had to evaluate animal after animal to decide whether it complied with airline policies. 

The DOT actually has pretty strict rules on which species airlines are allowed to prohibit, and that list is quite small. Delta Airlines has even tested how far an airline could go in setting its own policies when they banned “pit bull-type dogs” for a while. It was a reaction to two incidents of biting in Delta airports, but the DOT made them retract the ban. Aside from prohibited animals like snakes, rodents, and spiders, airline employees had to judge many ESAs on a case-by-case basis. They could keep animals from boarding that were 1) too big, or 2) behaving aggressively. The size issue was clear enough, but a calm animal in an airport isn’t necessarily a calm animal in a plane. Besides that, most of the incidents didn’t even involve aggression – it was mostly just a lack of training in appropriate public behavior. 

So, what are the details of this so-called ban on ESAs? First of all, it isn’t technically a ban. According to the DOT, airlines are no longer required to allow ESAs to board without restrictions. While this does mean that an airline could legally let support animals accompany their owners without crates or pet fees, there’s pretty much no chance of that happening. Instead of getting the same treatment as service animals, ESAs are now lumped into the same category as pets. They’ll have to be appropriately crated, they’ll probably end up taking the flight with the cargo, and their owners will have to pay the typical fees. 

Service animals have gotten some new regulations too, mainly regarding how they’re restrained and how much space they can take up. There are also a couple of new documents that all service animals (even psychiatric service animals) will need in order to fly. They replace the old documents, and are available on the DOT website. All things considered, the changes regarding service animals aren’t that drastic, especially compared to the updates for ESAs. It’s hard to say if there’s anything that can be done to change the decision at some point down the line; maybe someday there will be a solution that everyone will benefit from.