2021 Brings New Regulations for ESAs and Air Travel

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29 April 2021
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It’s easy to like most animals. People love the resident cat at the local café, or the dog they run into on the walking trail. It’s a different story when animals are let onto planes, though – they’re not nearly as popular then. 

Prior to January of 2021, the Department of Transportation’s regulations required airlines to allow emotional support animals onto flights, just like registered service animals. ESAs wouldn’t need to be carried in crates, and their owners could skip the usual pet fees. As increasing numbers of these animals started boarding planes, airlines started seeing a corresponding increase in the number of in-air incidents with ESAs. Dogs that would make a stranger’s day in any other context became skittish, loud, and sometimes even aggressive; cats would sometimes lose their cool and start scratching or biting. Then there were the dozens of other species that were also let onto planes as ESAs, which only increased the publicity that the issue was already getting. The majority of support animals may have been generally well-behaved, but it was obvious that they were too unpredictable to mix well with the other passengers.  

The US Department of Transportation doesn’t change its own regulations at the drop of a hat. The problems caused by ESAs had been building for quite a few years, and the DOT was dealing with pressure from both airlines and plane passengers to reconsider their regulations. To get more specific, it was pointed out that the DOT’s definition of “service animal” (which includes ESAs) should be closer to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s definition, which most definitely doesn’t include support animals. 

Before the new regulations took effect, the DOT had included ESAs by adding a clause about “any animal that provides emotional support”. This is a considerably looser definition than the one that’s widely accepted in the United States, which only includes dogs and miniature horses that are trained for a single task. 

What’s the difference between ESAs and service animals, anyway? It all has to do with their training. Plenty of people have observed seeing eye dogs in action, or even walked past a dog wearing a special harness that said “service animal in training, no distractions please”. Some ESAs wear special harnesses or other identifying gear, but on the surface most of them just look like regular pets. 

Every service animal, no matter what their function is, will have spent several years being trained. The main area of focus is the job they’ll be doing for their handler, obviously, but they’re also taught how to keep calm in public, no matter how crowded or overstimulating the environment is. At some point in their courses, they’re thoroughly house-trained as well. Given how advanced service animals’ training is, they rarely cause problems for airlines.

Then you have ESAs. Through no fault of their own, they simply do not mix well with plane passengers. Put hundreds of thousands of ESAs onto planes each year, and guess what will happen? Actually, you don’t have to guess – news sites were quick to pick up on the drama, and each new instance of some exotic animal misbehaving on a plane got its own story. 

To understand how this happened, you have to understand what an emotional support animal is. Fortunately, it’s not too complicated. It’s an animal (or even an insect or spider, in some cases) that provides emotional support. Pretty simple, right? There’s no required training in order to qualify for registration, no regulations that define which species can be ESAs, and no waitlists for ESAs with in-demand skills. The owner gets to choose which animal they want, and they get to choose the kind of training they get – if any. There may not be any training that’s necessary for everyday life, and who’s going to start asking ESA owners to start house training their support animals on the off-chance that they end up on a plane?

Given the relative informality of an ESA’s status, it’s tricky to prove that an animal is an ESA and not a pet. That’s why airlines ended up requiring ESA owners to bring a letter from the psychiatrist who recommended they get one – it’s not that official, but it was apparently official enough. 

It just so happens that these ESA letters were also easy for open-minded entrepreneurs to reproduce. Pet owners could purchase one of these fake ESA letters, pass their pet off as a support animal, and bring it onto the plane with no questions asked. They didn’t have to concern themselves with crate regulations, extra fees, or having their pet travel in the cargo hold, so why not?

Well, because this inflated the numbers of ESA-related incidents. Due to all the fraudulent support animals, airlines were reporting a record number of animals that ended up causing problems throughout their flights. Delta Airlines even tried to ban Pit Bulls from boarding flights because of two incidents of biting, but the DOT struck down the policy soon after. 

Given all the different factors, the DOT apparently thought that it was time for a big change. After considering the problem from several different angles, they decided to revise several aspects of their regulations. The most noteworthy change, of course, was that ESAs would now have to observe the same airline regulations as pets. Starting on January 11, 2021, ESA owners would have to pick out the crates, pay the fees, and somehow get through their flights without their support animals. This decision has received plenty of pushback from ESA owners, who point out that many of these animals are needed by their owners if they’re going to travel by plane. The observation has also been made that the DOT seemed to recognise the importance of ESAs before, so why didn’t they at least prohibit airlines from charging pet fees?

Interestingly enough, the DOT’s regulations used to mean that the US had some of the most lenient rules regarding ESAs and plane travel. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the regulations only allow ESAs to board with their owners at the airlines’ discretion – there’s no requirement to give them special consideration. A few budget airlines allow people to bring their emotional support dogs along with them, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Now that the DOT has updated their regulations, however, the UK’s regulations are actually less strict than those in the US.  

After all’s said and done, the DOT seems to have simply switched one messy situation for another – it’s just one that will inconvenience a much smaller group of people. Maybe with better awareness about the issue, all parties involved can eventually find a middle ground.