ESAs and Plane Travel – What to Know for 2021

By National Service Animal Registry 

Emotional Support Animals and Plane Travel

What to Know for 2021

Dogs are man’s best friend. Sometimes, so are rabbits, ferrets, snakes, or pigs. For anyone with an emotional support animal (ESA), they know that it’s more than just a pet; it’s what gets them through the day when things get tough.

Unfortunately, this perspective doesn’t exactly match up with how airlines view ESAs. From their point of view, the last few years have seen a sharp uptick in untrained animals of every description, which makes it a lot harder to ensure customer satisfaction. There have been quite a few in-air incidents involving these animals; some of them actually resulted in injuries to other passengers, but most of the incidents consisted of loud noises, unwanted allergens, or an animal relieving themselves where they definitely shouldn’t have.

Originally, most airlines gave ESAs the same privileges as service animals. Under the old rules, anyone who needed their emotional support animal to board a plane could bring the animal on board without extra restraints or fees. For a lot of people, this is a legitimate concern; there are plenty of psychiatric conditions that make travel or social interaction nearly impossible without an ESA.

This was great for ESA owners, but not so great for the people who had to interact with some of these animals. Incidents took place, complaints were made, and the US Department of Transportation ended up taking a look at the status of ESAs when it came to air travel. In December of 2020, they decided that airlines wouldn’t be required to waive restrictions and fees for ESAs; on January 11, 2021, the new rules went into effect.


 Cuddles with an Emotional Support Animal


grey paw print 

What Was The Tipping Point That Prompted The Change In Regulations?

Before getting into the details of the new regulations, here’s a little more background on why ESAs on airplanes grew into such an issue in the first place. The short version of the story is: these animals don’t have to be trained in order to provide emotional support, and untrained animals don’t always mix well with high volumes of people in a small space. There are more details to be told, though. A lot of these animals were untrained, but not all of them were actually ESAs – many of them were just plain old house pets.

Since “emotional support animal” can cover such a broad spectrum of disabilities, it’s hard to define or regulate. As such, the requirements to prove that an animal is an ESA are very minimal – the main document you’d need is a letter from your psychiatrist, saying that such-and-such animal is needed for psychological or emotional support. Once people figured out how basic the requirements for ESAs were, it didn’t take long for fake psychiatrist’s letters to pop up for sale online.

It was an easy way to skip the fees and crate requirements; a lot of people probably thought, “why not? It won’t hurt anybody”. No one pet is responsible for causing the public outcry against ESAs on planes, but there was definitely a cumulative effect. Nobody wants to put their pet into a crate and have it transported with the cargo, let alone pay the fees associated with the trip; but on the other side of the coin, it ultimately made the issue of untrained animals on planes a lot bigger than it should have been.

The problem was, these fake ESAs were just adding fuel to the fire with the disruption they were causing onboard the airplanes, and there was very little that airlines could do to mitigate the consequences. The law stated that as long as the owner provided a letter from a psychiatrist, designating the animal as an ESA, they couldn’t prevent the animal from boarding. Obviously, there were limits even to this vague rule – for instance, a fully grown horse wouldn’t have been allowed to walk into the plane – but those limits were still pretty hazy. There weren’t any requirements to prove that the animal was trained, and the ESA didn’t even have to be in a crate – many passengers complained about animals roaming around the plane cabin throughout their flight. 


 Chihuahua travelling on a plane


grey paw print 

Now That The New Rules Are In Place, What Do ESA Owners Need To Know?

In a nutshell, the DOT allows airlines to impose the same requirements on ESAs as they do on ordinary pets. That means that crates or other restraints will have to be used, and the typical fees will apply as well.

Plenty of people are less than happy about the new rules. After all, this could actually keep individuals who rely on their ESAs from traveling via airplanes. Previously, the general metric used for service animals and ESAs seemed to be the importance of their function to their owners. Now the DOT prioritizes animals with a certain level of training, which is exclusively service dogs.

It isn’t just ESAs that will have to adjust to the new rules; there are also some changes for service animals as well. The main one is that where the DOT is concerned, the definition of a “service animal” only includes dogs (previously it included miniature horses). There will also be a limit of two service dogs per person. They’ll have to be able to fit inside the passenger’s personal space, and they’ll have to wear some kind of restraint, like a halter. Airlines aren’t allowed to prohibit specific dog breeds, but now they can limit certain sizes – if it can’t fit onto a lap or under a seat, there could be a problem.

According to the National Service Animal Registry,  very few airlines may still allow ESAs to board for free with the right documentation, but that’s up to the discretion of the airline. Since they don’t legally have to allow support animals to board without the usual restraints, most airlines won’t be offering that anymore.

The Department of Transportation considered over 15,000 comments when drafting the new rules, so it’s likely that they’ll be in effect for quite a while. It’s hard to say what’s next for ESA owners, but who knows – there’s always room for change in the future.


By National Service Animal Registry



Visit: National Service Animal Registry 

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