About one month ago, air travelers accustomed to having their emotional support animals fly for free found out that they would no longer would have that benefit. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), the new rules “No longer consider(s) an emotional support animal to be a service animal.” As of January 11, travelers will have to pay to bring their animals with them.
The financial gain for commercial carriers, and the financial loss for those with emotional support animals, is considerable. . The number of service animals and ESAs has remarkably increased. In 2011, the figure was 2,400; today, it’s 215,461. Pettravel.com estimates the average fee for pet travel is $125.00 – each way.
Will the airlines make money on this change? Probably. The DOT estimated that the policy change would save airlines between $15.6 million and $21.6 million and that they would make somewhere between $3.9 to $12.7 million dollars on top of that.
This wasn’t purely driven by monetary gain. The DOT explained in its ruling that allowing ESAs to travel for free ignored the fact that frequently ESAs have caused damage on flights and cost airlines money. It also said that because service animals fly for free and pets face a charge, there was an incentive for people to claim their pets as ESAs.
The new ruling has not gone unnoticed. The DOT received 15,000 comments on the proposed rule change before entering its final rule, which was published on December 10.
The DOT’s new rules triggered a surge of policy changes by airlines. Before the new ruling, ESA owners had to display a letter from a physician that the ESA was warranted. The physician then issued a prescription for the patient.
But now, passengers wanting to take their ESAs on a Delta flight will now need another letter, this one to certify the animal’s ability to behave. American Airlines has adopted a similar policy. Alaska Airlines announced that as of January 11, “Alaska will accept only service dogs which are trained to do work or perform tasks…Emotional support animals will no longer be accepted.”
This new regulation does not apply to service animals – those animals specifically trained to help people with particular issues, like blindness and diabetes mellitus. ESAs are not specially trained; any animal can be recast as an ESA, as long as the owner’s physician deems it so, and gives the pet owner a prescription for an ESA certification.
The new rules clarify that only service animals, specially trained to help their owners with mental health issues, will be recognized for providing that service. Offering comfort is not enough for an animal to be considered a service dog.
Also, airlines no longer have to recognize any animal, save for a dog, as a service animal — which means their peacocks, pigs, cats, rabbits, even miniature horses — have lost their service animal status in flight. Service animal owners now also must hand in a DOT-produced document attesting to the animal’s health, good behavior and training.
A true service dog is allowed to stay in hotel rooms, walk with its companion through a salad bar, or into a restaurant, and be in the hospital. Because they are a documented medical need with a clear purpose, these animals get a lot of access to spaces that are generally not pet-friendly. ESAs are not granted these rights by the federal government.
ESA owners are not pleased with the DOT’s changes, possibly for good reason. There isn’t a lot of research on the value, or lack thereof, of ESAs, but a study from 2020 found a positive effect. Of the nearly 300 participants, almost all of them overwhelmingly felt more secure, more motivated, and less anxious, and were better able to resume or enjoy life, school, or work with their ESAs. This study was industry sponsored.
A more recent study from Virginia Commonwealth University researchers found that companion animals could help LGBTQ and teens. Those with companion animals faced less anxiety and depression when exposed to everyday slights, biased statements, and so on.
Disability rights groups, like the Equal Rights Center and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, opposed the DOT’s rule, saying that it was paternalistic to assume regulators know best regarding support animals and that the restrictions were unfair.
But, American Airlines and DOT both cited poor oversight as issues with ESAs. Although one way to get an ESA is to visit a mental health practitioner and get a letter, another is to go online and get a similar document without a physician’s prior input.
A study authored by Joshua Carroll, MD, a psychiatrist at University of California, San Francisco, tried to explore the complexities of ESAs. The study concluded that despite limited research, it appeared ESAs were beneficial, but that practitioners should have more formal training in ESAs before they prescribe them.
Until more robust research is conducted, ESAs may remain a contentious issue. A better system for certification could make life easier for airlines and passengers alike. Until then, people looking to travel with their ESAs will need to seek even more documentation, or buy Fido his own ticket.