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USDOT Looks to End the Era of Emotional Support Animals on Airplanes

News Airports + Flying
by Matthew Meltzer Jan 22, 2020

It seems the days of the emotional support peacock may be coming to a close.

Granted, the need for legitimate service animals is certainly at the forefront of national transportation policy, and plenty of people have emotional support animals for legitimate reasons. But anyone who’s been on a flight with a barking dog or seen one pee on the floor in the concourse knows some people have been skirting those rules of legitimacy.

And the US Department of Transportation is cracking down.

Today it proposed amendments to its Air Carrier Access Act severely limiting what, exactly, can be considered a service animal, and what will be required to get them on board.

In a statement released today, the USDOT issued a notice for proposed rulemaking on travel by air with service animals. The gist of the new rules effectively close the loophole allowing people to claim their pet is for emotional support without proper training, thus avoiding extra fees and keeping the animals in pet compartments. The new rules will require legitimate service training and certification for an animal to be allowed on for “emotional support.”

Specifically, the USDOT will define service animals as ones who have been trained to do work or support tasks for someone with a disability. Emotional support animals will no longer be considered service animals and therefore subject to the usual pet regulations aboard aircraft.

Of course, some people do need animals aboard for psychiatric reasons, but those dogs will also require the same training as service animals for people with physical disabilities.

People will be limited to two service animals per person, and they must fit in the space under the seat and be leashed or tethered. Airlines will also be allowed to require passengers to provide DOT forms showing the animal has good behavior and can take a long flight without relieving itself on the floor.

It should be noted that most airlines already require complex paperwork to board a plane with an emotional support animal — individualized to each airline — including letters from a mental health professional, agreements signed by doctors and the passenger, and certificate of health from vets. And many airlines require new documentation each and every time you board a plane or require renewal after a certain time frame.

So the idea that people are waltzing onto the plane with fraudulent ESAs and taken at their word is not true. If the animal is not a legitimate ESA, then it would have had to get falsified medical documents. Clearly, though, some people still find a way to abuse the system — making it even more complicated now for those with mental health issues assuaged by animal companions during flights.

USDOT provided a number of other regulations and provisions, and you can read the whole thing here if you want to drill down the details. The public has 60 days to comment before the new rules go into the register.

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