After a year of lobbying, US airlines have been cleared to ban Emotional Support Animals (ESA) from the passenger cabin. Last month, the US Department of Transportation announced that it was changing the terms of the Air Carrier Access Act service animal rule to exclude all ESA with the exception of trained service animals like guide dogs for the blind. The new changes come into effect on Monday, January 18.
The new rules define a service animal exclusively as a dog and mean airlines are no longer required to accommodate – and here we’re quoting the Department of Transport’s own FAQ sheet – “miniature horses, cats, rabbits, birds and all other service animals that airlines are currently required to transport.” The changes come in the wake of a stream of negative publicity about ESA and their owners: in July 2019, an emotional support dog bit a flight attendant working for Envoy Air on behalf of American Airlines; last November, American Airlines asked an 80-pound emotional support pig and its owner to leave the plane after the pig squealed and defecated in the aisles.
— Angelica Spanos (@AngelicaSpanos) November 26, 2014
The guidance the airlines sought, and have now received, was to restrict the definition of a service animal to “a dog that is 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.” It also “allows airlines to recognise emotional support animals as pets, rather than service animals.” The rule change will also allow the airlines to require passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to submit a form “attesting to the animal’s training and good behaviour, and certifying the animal’s good health.”
For passengers with emotional support animals, this means they will henceforth have to pay pet fees and put their beloved pets in the cargo hold. So far, Alaska Airlines, American, United, JetBlue and Delta have instituted the ban; Southwest is holding out, saying “our Emotional Support Animals policy has not changed. Southwest will announce this year any changes and timelines for those changes to our policies.”