In accordance with US Department of Transportation rules that took effect on January 11, 2021, some airlines in the United Sates have modified their policies on emotional support animals. On most airlines, emotional support animals will now be treated as pets and cannot be brought onboard for free for new travel reservations.

In my opinion, the previous policies on emotional support animals were often abused. People brought exotic animals like pigs, peacocks and parrots into the passenger cabin under the guise of being required for their emotional support. While emotional support animals required a letter of certification from a healthcare professional, such letters were not difficult to obtain online if a person asserted they helped with conditions such as depression, anxiety, phobias, or PTSD.

Most airlines charge passengers a hefty fee to bring pets with them inside the cabin, but federal law allowed people with disabilities to have service animals free of charge, including emotional support and comfort animals, without defining what those are. That was a big temptation for some people to stretch the definition of an emotional support animal.

After the concept of emotional support animals took hold, it was fairly common to see passengers on board with pets of various types that were not in carriers or kennels. On an American Airlines flight in 2016 from Panama City, Panama to Miami, FL, I was sitting behind two passengers who had two full-sized golden retrievers sitting with them in the bulkhead row. It looked like these dogs were provided no emotional support because the owners paid no attention to them. The owners did not appear to have any disability that a service dog would compensate for. The dogs didn’t seem to have enough space to be comfortable.

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Now pets other than service animals must be treated as pets. On American Airlines that means:

  • You pay the carry-on pet charge
  • Your pet stays in the kennel and under the seat in front of you the entire flight
  • You can travel with your pet carrier and one personal item, but you won’t be permitted to bring a carry-on bag in addition to a pet carrier and personal item. Instead, the kennel will replace your carry-on bag.

In addition, airlines have limitations on the number of kennels allowed and the locations where passengers with pets can sit. These limitations vary by aircraft type.

Service Animals

Service animals, dogs, are exempt from the limitations for pets. To qualify as a service animal, the owner must provide, subject to fines and other penalties for knowingly false statements, information on a DOT form attesting to the dog’s training, health, behavior, and need to assist with a disability.

American Airlines publishes the following requirements for service animal:

A service animal is defined as a dog that’s individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability, including but not limited to:

  • Visual impairments
  • Deafness
  • Seizures
  • Mobility impairments
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Final Thoughts

It is a shame that abuse of the previous policies on emotional support animals resulted in the loss of the privilege. What has been your experience with emotional support animals on airplanes? Do you think the change in policy is appropriate?