Travel Regulations Change for ESAs in 2021
Plenty of people would consider themselves to be animal lovers, but they might change their minds if they ran into a misbehaving emotional support animal on a crowded plane. That was the situation for millions of people over the past several years, mainly because the Department of Transportation allowed ESAs to board planes with minimal restrictions. With so many support animals boarding planes without restraints or training, there were plenty of unpleasant incidents that ended badly for both people and animals. All of that changed in the beginning of 2021, though. The DOT announced new regulations, requiring ESA owners to abide by the rules that airlines set for ordinary pets.
That’s a pretty drastic move; why was it necessary? As it happens, there’s a lot more to the story than just a few instances of yapping or urination.
Let’s have a Look at Why
To start with, emotional support animals have a PR problem. Not all ESA owners get their animals registered by legit registries like the National Service Animal Registry. ESAs tend to get noticed because of the novelty factor, for example – ESAs can be any species of animal, so people feel free to acquire not only dogs and cats, but also pigs, snakes, monkeys, turkeys, and anything else that can provide emotional support. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but this kind of variety really doesn’t mix well with plane travel. Either the animals don’t like the people, or the people don’t like the animals. Add to that the fact that ESAs don’t tend to receive much training, and you have a mess just waiting to happen. A badly behaved kid on a flight won’t get that much attention, but what about a badly behaved kangaroo? That’s going to end up on the internet for sure, and it’ll also influence the way people view ESAs. Multiply that by a few thousand and add dozens of news stories, and you have a lot of mistrust, to say the least.
What was the Public Opinion?
Public opinion may have been partly shaped by the online portrayal of ESAs as bizarre or unpredictable, but the DOT was listening to the actual accounts of in-air incidents that involved support animals. Most of them consisted of annoyances, like disrupting passengers with their noise or by roaming around the cabin, but sometimes it went beyond that. Support animals would often react to the crowds and small spaces by inappropriately relieving themselves, and sometimes they would even become threatening – barking, scratching, and biting by ESAs was reported by airlines all over the country.
For airlines, the worst part was that they couldn’t really do anything to change the situation. They aren’t exactly known for their stellar customer service in the first place, and they really didn’t need people feeling like they were risking a run-in with an aggressive animal every time they hopped onto a plane. The airlines’ only option was to tell the DOT about it – and they certainly did that.
What other Animals are on Planes?
Emotional support animals aren’t the only animals that are allowed to board planes with their owners; service animals are also exempt from airline pet regulations. So why were people just complaining about ESAs? Because service animals are highly trained, and they’re almost always dogs – no novelty species here. Miniature horses might also be trained as service animals, but dogs are pretty much the norm. Since behaving well in public literally a part of their training, they’re hardly ever involved in these types of incidents; hence why all the complaints were focused on ESAs. It’s also why service animals only have a few regulation changes of their own since the DOT announcement – more on that later.
This story didn’t need a plot twist, but it got one anyway. ESAs already didn’t have a great public image based on their own behaviour, but they also ended up taking the fall for incidents involving fraudulent ESAs. That’s right – fake support animals on planes contributed to the DOT decision that’ll end up affecting millions of ESA owners in the next few years. This happened mainly due to human opportunism, and for a while, it seemed like the perfect way to travel with a pet. After all, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to skip the pet fees, toss the crate, and avoid a bunch of extra steps to stow your pet with the cargo? All you had to do was buy a fake psychiatrist’s letter, identifying your pet as a support animal that you’d been advised to get by your mental healthcare provider. That’s the only ESA-specific document you need to board a plane with your animal, so it’s actually easier than doing things the right way.
Change the DOT has Had to Make
Unfortunately, this contributed to a dramatic rise in the numbers of unruly animals in plane cabins – and there was no way for airlines to identify the impostors. With increasing complaints from airlines and passengers, the DOT finally decided in 2018 that it would be re-examining its policies on ESAs and plane travel. Over two years later, in January of 2021, they announced that emotional support animals would be required to observe the same rules as regular pets.
What about the service animals? They’ll still be allowed onto planes without fees or crates, but they’ll have to be leashed or harnessed. That’s only if the service animal is a dog – no miniature horses, which are considered to be service animals according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Psychiatric service dogs used to need additional documentation compared to other service animals, but now all service animals will be using the same documents that were recently published by the DOT.
This has been a pretty divisive decision; airlines are obviously happy that their staff, passengers, and overall reputation won’t be affected by ESAs anymore. However, ESA owners and advocates say that the new regulations show a disregard for the importance of support animals in potentially stressful situations, like travelling via plane. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a solution that can satisfy everyone; maybe the best thing to do is work on changing the public perception of emotional support animals, and see if that opens a door to change in the future.