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Support Animals and Air Travel: What’s Changing in 2021

At the beginning of December 2020, the DOT confirmed that in just a few months, they’ll be updating the requirements for support animals that travel by air. The current requirements allow emotional support animals (ESAs) to board the plane along with their owners, but starting in early 2021, owners will have to prove that their dogs are both fully trained, and necessary to help with a disability.

Among other things, the new requirements get much more specific about what exactly a “service animal” is. They specify that the animal in question has to have specific training to help their owner with their particular disability. This is in contrast to emotional support dogs, which don’t necessarily have to be trained in order to do their jobs. Now, most airlines’ definition of a “service animal” will look more like what the ADA describes: an animal that is trained for a specialized task, in order to mitigate the effects of their owner’s disability. In some cases miniature horses are also considered service animals, but airlines are only required to accept dogs. Other animals that may not be allowed to board as designated service animals include rabbits, birds, and cats.

The focus will be shifting from the need of the owner, to the training of the animal. The current rules allow an individual to bring their dog onto an airplane if they can provide at least a letter from their psychiatrist, proving that the dog is an ESA (which can be obtained from the National Service Animal Registry). This means that two hypothetical people, both with PTSD, could take their support animals on board with them, even if one of the dogs was a trained service animal and the other an ESA. As long as both of the individuals had the right documentation, they wouldn’t have to pay extra fees or put their dog in the luggage area. Now that the rules are changing, though, only the hypothetical passenger with the trained service dog would be allowed to bring his animal onboard without the usual restrictions.

This might sound like a harsh change, but it’s in response to concerns from several parties about the level of training that can be expected of emotional support dogs. Because they aren’t required to have formal training, many ESAs simply aren’t suited to go into the passenger section of an aircraft while unrestrained. It turns out that untrained support animals were the cause of quite a few onboard incidents – more than could be ignored, apparently. With the new regulations only allowing trained service animals to board with fewer restrictions, the assumption is that any animal that can perform complex tasks for their owner has also been trained on how to behave in public. While some people could say that they’re avoiding the issue by making the rules about certified service animals instead of just well-trained support animals, this is probably the cleanest solution to the problem. Training for service animals is easily verified, but a certificate from any old dog training service may not mean that the animal is actually suited for air travel.

Another issue that the new rules are meant to correct is the problem of fake emotional support animals. Because of the vagueness of the current rules, some airline staff have had problems differentiating between genuine ESAs, and beloved pets with owners who don’t want to pay extra fees. This is one of the factors that hass contributed to the presence of disruptive animals in the passenger sections of airplanes.

In addition to narrowing down which dogs are allowed onto planes with their owners, the new rules specify that every service animal has to either fit underneath the seat, or be able to sit on their owner’s lap. Also, the dog has to wear a harness, unless it would prevent them from doing their job.

They aren’t just changing the rules for which animals can travel on planes; they’ve also updated the documentation that’s required. Whether the service animal is trained to be a seeing eye dog or to offer psychiatric support, every service animal owner will need the same two forms. The first one is the US Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form, and the second is the US Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation. With one form, the owner certifies that their dog is a trained service animal, and with the other form, the owner states that their animal is trained to avoid relieving itself in public, unless it’s done in a designated way.

What do the new rules mean for individuals with ESAs? They can still take their animals with them into the airplane, but it won’t be free, and they’ll have to observe a few more rules. If the animal is too large to fit comfortably underneath the seat, the airline might move it to the cargo section. As with any other pet, the ESA will have to be in an airline-approved crate, or be kept on a leash.

These new rules might seem like a blow to owners and advocates of emotional support animals. After all, you can’t deny that an ESA is essential for some people to board a plane – physical impairments aren’t the only thing that can disable someone. The thing is, the Department of Transportation has to set its rules with everyone in mind, not just the needs of a small minority.

An “emotional support animal”, as an official designation, is a relatively new thing. Not everyone understands what they are, and there are very few requirements for what makes an ESA. This is part of the reason why they don’t get the same treatment as certified service animals – without any formal training or certification requirements, literally any animal that’s moderately good-natured can be an ESA. It seems that with the amount of complaints that airlines have been receiving, ESAs can come in a wider variety than most airline passengers are happy with. This might feel like a step back for people with emotional support dogs, but there’s a good reason for it; on the whole, it could be a step in the right direction.

Submitted on behalf of NSARCO

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