Are Emotional Support Animals Now Banned?

December 3, 2020

A new order from the Department of Transportation has made a change to the rules surrounding Emotional Support Animals on airplanes, but are they banned?

Prior Rules Regarding Animals on Airplanes

Until December 2nd, 2020, rules around pets traveling with their owners in the cabin free-of-charge were protected by various government agencies. Owners that had a doctor’s note stating they needed their animal with them in the cabin for emotional support could bring their animal without cost and airlines could not charge for this to comply with regulations around persons with a disability.

Some had genuine needs, while others seemed to abuse the rule. An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) was different than a service dog. Here are some examples of potential abuse:

The initial rule protected those who had needs that may not involve a traditionally trained service dog (several thousands of dollars) and disabilities outside of blindness and PTSD that may still pose problems for flyers but are less obvious than others. Not all disabilities are visible. 

The prior ruling left airlines powerless to stop the spiraling transportation of animals in the cabin for no cost to the traveler. Without the prior rule, airlines typically charged $50-100 each way for the pet to travel in the cabin so long as it could fit in a case underneath the seat in front of the passenger, could turn around for comfort, and wasn’t a nuisance. 

The prior rule instead required airlines to transport the emotional support animal cost-free with a notice from a physician claiming the need for the animal for emotional support, did not impose the size nor animal type regulations, and disallowed the airlines from charging for the transportation of the animal.

Department of Transportation Ruling

A new Department of Transportation final ruling was issued after two years of public comment. Airlines can now charge for animals in the cabin that are not legitimate service animals and the old loopholes are gone. This will likely decrease the numbers of animals on planes in the cabin, and increase pet fee revenues for airlines by up to $56 million annually.

The DoT was clear that genuine service dogs are trained to do work for the benefit of a person, they are individually trained to work or perform tasks for the benefit of the flyer. 

The airline lobby group, Airlines for America, was a major proponent of the change.

What’s Still Allowed

The new ruling doesn’t outright ban emotional support animals, and it doesn’t force airlines to charge for the carriage of pets in their cabins, service, or otherwise. But the restriction that required airlines to carry the pets for free with a doctor’s note is now gone. Given the state of travel today, it’s unlikely that the airlines will immediately move to charge for the carriage of ESAs but they are permitted to do so.

While untrained animals no longer qualify, trained dogs do. Those who wish to travel with their pets other than dogs must do so with the animal in the cargo hold of the aircraft for a fee. Depending on the carrier, some animals other than dogs may be transported in the cabin for a fee, adhering to the pet guideline standards. Those who have a psychiatric need for their dog in the cabin must have the animal trained (though the ruling will allow for animals to be trained by the owner so long as they adhere to the same standards and behavioral performance.)

Emotional support animals planes


In concluding our in-depth look at the regulations surrounding emotional support animals (ESAs) in airline travel, it’s essential to understand how these guidelines intersect with federal law and the rights of individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), along with the Air Carrier Access Act, provides a framework that ensures individuals with mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or those prone to panic attacks, can travel with their support animals.

Emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs are more than just pets; they are a lifeline for many individuals with a disability. These animals, including miniature horses in some cases, are trained to do work or perform tasks specifically related to the individual’s condition. This work could range from providing calming pressure during a panic attack to reminding a person to take their medication. Unlike typical pets, these support animals receive extensive training to ensure they can handle the stresses and scenarios associated with air travel.

It’s important to differentiate between emotional support animals and service animals. While both provide invaluable support, psychiatric service dogs receive special training that qualifies them under the ADA. This distinction is crucial in the context of airline regulations. The Air Carrier Access Act, which governs airline travel, has its own set of regulations that airlines must follow, including the allowance of psychiatric service dogs on flights.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development also plays a role in this arena, particularly concerning housing rights for individuals with emotional support animals. A qualified individual with a disability is entitled to live with their emotional support animal under federal law, even in housing that generally prohibits pets.

However, the landscape of airline regulations for emotional support animals is ever-evolving. While there is recognition of the crucial role these animals play, airlines also have to balance the safety and comfort of all passengers. Therefore, it’s vital for travelers with emotional support or psychiatric service animals to stay informed about the latest airline policies and federal regulations.

In conclusion, emotional support and psychiatric service animals are indispensable companions to many, offering more than just companionship – they provide a therapeutic presence to those dealing with various mental health challenges. While federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act provide a legal framework for their inclusion in air travel and housing, understanding the nuances of these laws and staying abreast of any changes is crucial for any individual relying on these essential animals for support. The ongoing dialogue between airlines, regulatory bodies, and disability advocates is key to ensuring that the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities are respected and accommodated in all spheres, including air travel.

What do you think? Do you travel with an ESA? Do you think the rule got out of hand?

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