For almost two years, ESA (Emotional Support Animal) owners and advocacy groups have voiced their concerns about the changes that the DOT was considering for the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This set of regulations dictates how airlines have to treat service animals and ESAs; because of escalating issues related to ESAs on planes, their shared status with service dogs was in jeopardy.
At the heart of the issue was the airlines’ inability to limit the massive uptick in ESAs that they’d seen in the past several years. With one incident after another making headlines, support animals began to get more of a negative reputation. There were a few incidents of biting, which led Delta Airlines to ban pitbulls for a while – before the DOT overturned the ban. More frequent than biting were instances of noise, aggression, inappropriate defecation, and allergic reactions. Between one thing and another, people started seeing ESAs as nuisances more than necessary support animals.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t include ESAs in their definition of “service animal”, the DOT did for quite some time. The most common definition specifies that the service animal (either a miniature horse or a dog) will have been trained to perform a task. This task could be anything from sensing when a seizure is about to happen, to pulling a wheelchair, to guiding someone who’s visually impaired. The point is, these animals are highly trained. When the DOT decided that ESAs should be allowed onto planes without crates or fees, they updated the regulations by adding ESAs to their definition. In addition to an animal with specific training, the DOT said that a service animal could be any animal that rendered emotional support.
There wasn’t any mention of training for the ESAs, because they often don’t have any. Their owners decide whether or not they get trained, but most of the time they don’t really need it. These animals often get picked by someone because of their connection with the person, so most of the time they’re fully qualified to be an ESA from the beginning. Even if they’re house-trained, there’s no guarantee that the animal will remember any of that once they’re in an airplane.
Just like ESAs aren’t necessarily trained, none of them are really certified either – certainly not to the degree that a service animal can be. Airlines needed to require something before they could let an animal board the plane without a crate, so they asked for a specific kind of letter. This letter had to come from a mental healthcare provider, and it had to identify the animal as an emotional support animal which they had recommended to their patient. So far so good, right? Not exactly.
These letters, coming as they did from countless mental health facilities all over the country, turned out to be very easy to fake. Enterprising individuals decided to start selling fraudulent ESA letters online, and they sold like hotcakes. It wasn’t long before pet owners did the math – one fake letter costs far less than the pet fees, crate, special food and water bowls, etc. It’s also so much less stressful for the owner and the pet if nobody has to ride with the cargo. Probably nobody imagined the consequences that this would have for the real support animals and their owners, but the rise in fake ESAs was the beginning of the end.
When the DOT first started allowing people to bring their ESAs onto planes, the situation didn’t seem out of control. There were incidents, sure, but not enough to trigger serious backlash from passengers. Once the numbers of fraudulent support animals began to rise, though, everyone started to pay attention. Not only were there more ESAs, but there were more memorable ESAs. People might feel comfortable around dogs and cats, even if they aren’t perfectly behaved; but they’re far more likely to be annoyed or intimidated by other species. People brought monkeys, kangaroos, pigs, and turkeys onto planes, many of them as legitimate emotional support animals. Not all of them acted out, but the people who were already feeling peevish about ESAs on planes thought that this was a bridge too far.
Airlines had been telling the DOT for years that something needed to change. Public opinion on ESAs wasn’t necessarily all negative, but the stories were already out there. Rightly or wrongly, support animals were quickly getting a bad name. Even service animals were starting to get ugly looks in airports, from people who assumed that they would end up causing trouble later on. Finally, the DOT decided to respond to the complaints. The ACAA would get a revision that would address the issues that had been building for years – this was announced in early 2019. On January 11, 2021, the changes were made official. Even though the DOT said that they had taken almost two years to research which were the right changes to make, ESA owners felt that their needs had been ignored in order to appease airlines.
The main focus has been on how the new rules have affected ESAs, but anyone who’ll be flying with a service animal may have some adjustments to make as well. Most likely in response to passenger complaints, service horses (they’re miniatures, but still) won’t be permitted to board airplanes. Only dogs can board as service animals, as long as they can fit under a seat or on a lap. They’ll have to use a harness, and passengers can bring a maximum of two animals along. There are also two new forms to use, which the DOT has published on their website.
There is one loophole. For the people who purchased a ticket before January 11, some airlines will still allow them to bring their ESA with them if the trip will be made within a certain time frame. At the latest, that time frame would extend through May or June; after that, ESA owners will either have to fly by the rules, or come up with another way to travel.