The Updated 2019 Guidance for Flying with Emotional Support Pets
7 min read
Have you ever boarded a flight to find a piglet or a peacock sitting right next to you? It might sound ridiculous to some, but it’s not as unlikely as you may think. A large percentage of animals flying in cabin, unrestricted and fee-free, are emotional support animals (ESAs). These are animals that passengers need for emotional support due to recognized mental health conditions. This trend is not going away anytime soon: it’s been predicted that ESAs will increase by 150% over the next five years.
Up until recently, the types of animals allowed to fly in the cabin, free of charge, were not too clearly regulated, nor was the process of acquiring the right documentation to fly with a support animal in the first place.
Airlines have noticed the growing discontent among passengers and the U.S is now setting stricter, and more precise rules for emotional support animals flying in the cabin. Cue the Department of Transportation recently updating their regulations concerning the rights of ESAs and their owners on flights – now there are guidelines every airline has to adhere to. The updated 2019 document breaks down all that an ESA passenger should know before booking and boarding a flight. We’ll go through the most important regulations later in this article, so you won’t be caught unprepared again!
What is the difference between service animals and emotional support animals?
First of all, it should be noted that not all animals flying in-cabin are emotional support animals. The majority of them are actually service dogs or other service animals. These terms are used to describe two very different roles.
A service dog is a trained animal, taught to carry out physical tasks for an owner with a disability, such as a trained dog guiding a blind owner. An emotional support animal is instead a companion, providing emotional support to owners struggling with anxiety, stress, or depression.
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Any pet can be considered and legally become an emotional support animal, without any training required, which is instead essential for any service animal.
These key differences mean that the updated regulations will not affect service dogs. Their rights are in fact already protected through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which establishes their right to access all areas their owners have to access, including cabin flights.
The rules: what to consider when getting prepared for a flight with your pet
With an ESA letter, animals should be allowed on all flights in the cabin, and free of charge.
What are the updated airline rules and how are they different from the previous guidelines?
In 2018, official policies were released by the Department of Transportation regarding the species of ESA allowed on flights, the number of ESAs allowed per passenger, proof of ESA status, additional documentation for threat assessment purposes, animal containment, check-in, and advance notice requirements. This first ruling already cleared up much of the confusion surrounding the issue.
However, the updated regulations of 2019 are a response to comments and criticism from the service animal and ESA representatives, looking to crack down on airlines imposing restrictions beyond these regulations.
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So, what has changed? Here is a handy breakdown of the additional regulations extended to all U.S. airlines:
All breeds and sizes allowed!
The first point concerns a quite controversial issue: dog breeds and temperament. Some people believe that the breed of a dog dictates their level of aggressiveness and potential danger to the public, even though this theory has long been abandoned by the scientific community.
For the joy of all dog enthusiasts out there, breed bans are out. Categorical flight bans based on your dog’s breed (like pit bulls and rottweilers, previously banned by some airlines) are no longer allowed. This is definitely a win for animal rights activists; their right to be in the aircraft cabin will be based on veterinary documentation alone.
Airlines are also not allowed to impose categorical weight limits on ESAs. Of course, animals may still be excluded from the cabin if they are too large to fit under the seat in front of you – but that might happen on a case-by-case basis, not categorically.
Age does matter
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How old is your pup? Restrictions may apply to ESAs younger than four months, as it’s not believed that a companion animal would be able to behave appropriately on a plane when younger than that age. This restriction is only in place because of the behavioral requirements of animals flying in the cabin, rather than the age itself. So, make sure your kitten or pup is of age before boarding!
Your ESA letter will do
Prior to this update, airlines used to have their own form available for ESA owners, notifying the airline about their need to have their companion fly alongside them. Now an ESA letter is all you need. Just make sure that this documentation is up to date and provided by a licensed mental health professional or qualified third-party agency.
Still, this might not be all the documentation you need. Airlines are in their right to ask you for additional documentation reporting on your pet’s vaccination status and behavior. This will ensure that your companion meets all the requirements for flying on a packed plane, as the last thing you’d want is having a noisy, disruptive, or sick pet flying with you! It might turn your trip into a nightmare not just for you but for your pet as well.
No more flight length restrictions
Airlines cannot impose restrictions on flight length when traveling with an ESA, at least categorically. In the case of flights lasting 8 hours or more, passengers can be asked to present documentation stating that their ESA won’t need to visit the restroom during the flight. In the case of long-haul flights, where a potty visit cannot be avoided, owners have to provide documentation explaining how this might be done without causing inconvenience to other passengers, or worse, a sanitation risk.
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But there is still room for criticism…
These updated regulations have certainly cleared the air when it comes to traveling with an emotional support animal. As long as a passenger possesses a legitimate ESA letter provided by a licensed mental health professional, their furry companions should be allowed on all flights in the cabin, and free of charge.
Still, the system is not exempt from criticism, as many passengers believe that the current ESA regulations are being manipulated by pet owners trying to have their companions fly with them without hefty travel fees. The notorious cost of flying with pets is also paired with the worry of having a beloved animal companion fly cargo – although rare, deathly accidents do happen.
It is no surprise that many owners resort to counterfeit ESA letters in order to avoid high fees and safety risks.
The impact that pets on board can have on passengers and crew is also hard to ignore, no matter how well behaved the animal might be. There are also other issues regarding passenger health and safety that could pose a problem to more ESA-friendly legislation. For example, what happens when the passenger sitting next to you has a serious allergy? What about specific phobias, such as cynophobia, that could trigger passengers or crew members? These passengers are usually reallocated to further away seats or given a voucher as an apology gesture, but their complaints may not end there.
Despite such concerns being addressed by airline representatives, there is still a lack of regulations protecting passengers and crew from the potential harm ESAs and service animals alike may cause. More lawsuits and legal actions may follow these regulations to guarantee fairness to all passengers on board. Is there a way to protect all without invalidating a person’s mental health condition?
It's good to regularly check the updates in the regulations and laws to avoid any misunderstanding.
Validation is certainly the most important aspect of these transport regulations. This nationwide consensus is going a long way to ensure emotional support animals are recognized by all, validating their role and their owners’ needs at the same time. We don’t know if European countries follow suit next, perhaps with EU-wide regulations that have yet to be addressed. As long as more high-profile scandals are avoided, such as 70-pounds pigs flying in cabin, we might soon be looking at more ESA-friendly actions coming out of the other side of the pond too. That is why do not forget about checking on regulation changes from time to time in order to keep yourself updated.
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