Department of Transportation Plans To Ban Nearly All Emotional Support Animals

The U.S. Department of Transportation released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, opening the comment period over how it intends to reform rules over service animals. Over the summer DOT told airlines they wouldn’t pursue enforcement if they placed certain limits on service animals. Pending new regulations airlines couldn’t ban them outright (Delta rules banning specific breeds of dogs went beyond DOT guidance.) But it was clear the U.S. government was ready for a crackdown.

And now they’ve laid out where they want to go with new rules implementing the Air Carrier Access Act (support animals on planes are often mistakenly believed to be governed by the Americans With Disabilities Act).

While “[t]he Department recognizes the integral role that service animals play in the lives of many individuals with disabilities and wants to ensure that individuals with disabilities can continue using their service animals” the DOT proposes to:

  • Define a service animal “as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability” (emphasis mine)

  • No longer consider an emotional support animal to be a service animal

  • Provide for a psychiatric service animal if it has “the same training…as other service animals”

  • Develop standard forms for airlines to require from passengers “attesting to a service animal’s good behavior, certifying the service animal’s good health, and if taking a long flight attesting that the service animal has the ability to either not relieve itself, or can relieve itself in a sanitary manner”

  • Permit airlines to require one additional hour of advance check-in time for passengers traveling with a service animal (to process documentation and “observe the animal”), while requiring “prompt check-in” for such passengers.

  • Allow airlines to limit a passenger to two service animals and to require animals:

    1. to fit into the passenger’s foot space
    2. to be “harnessed, leashed, tethered, or otherwise under the control of its handler”

  • To allow airlines to refuse transportation to service animals “that exhibit aggressive behavior and that pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others”

Nonetheless airlines will not be permitted to refuse transportation to a service animal purely on the basis of breed (Delta has banned pit bulls – I wonder why – and this would explicitly be forbidden).

A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking opens a public comment period. DOT is required to consider public comments in promulgating a final regulation. They may or may not reach that stage, and final rules can vary from proposed rules. Nonetheless this describes current Department of Transportation thinking on the future of service animals and in particular emotional support animals. I suspect a majority of readers will be sympathetic to this approach. Is that correct?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. In principle, I support this. I haven’t had any problems or even much experience with emotional support animals, but from what I’ve read here and elsewhere I understand that some passengers have been abusing this category to simply bring their pets on flights and/or that some animals have proven problematic. Still, I’d welcome being educated on this issue in either direction.

    As a separate matter, I’m not clear on what the difference would be between an emotional support animal and a psychiatric service animal. Perhaps the latter would require a greater degree of certification as to the animal, the owner’s psychiatric issues or both?

  2. Regarding the “emotional support animals not being considered service animals” part, does that mean ESAs won’t be allowed on the plane? I know that rule is currently abused with many people buying vests for their dogs online (sometimes not even bothering to do that), but it would be surprising to see ESAs not being allowed on any flights.

  3. No one will stop me from bringing on my emotional support elephant ,pig,otter dogs etc
    We are a devoted family and cannot be separated for my sanity and well being
    They will have to drag us off 😉

  4. Thank goodness. I can’t believe how many people I’ve had sit by while their giant, slobbering dog spills into my footspace, acts aggressively, bites, or relieves itself on the plane.

    Coupled with the similar cats, hamsters (yep), and even bunny rabbits. How unhinged are Americans now anyway that the plane is now a zoo?

    If you are so mentally unstable that you can’t travel without these animals, don’t fly. Or just pay the pet fee like any rational, non-self-centered human being would.

  5. @Too Much Flying — the rules don’t mention “giant, slobbering dog spills into my footspace” so you’re still stuck with those 🙂

    “If you are so mentally unstable …., don’t fly” — thank you for that “advice”! We should also ban all misbehaving children and drunken passengers and also all everyone else who we don’t like.

    As for the rules, I really hope ESA guidance will stay intact as it really helps me fly with my tiny Pekingese. You have no idea how stressful and complicated flights are in other countries.

  6. @Andrew: You cannot fly without your tiny Pekingese? LOL

    How do you even face getting out of bed each day? You live in Portland, don’t you?

  7. What happened to allow this to become such an idiotic issue in just a few years? Initially, it was well understood, and acceptable, for veterans to have the ability to have their service/emotional support dog with them. Now, everybody and their mother has to shlep on board horses, ducks, birds, and ill-tempered dogs, e.g., pit bulls.

    The DOT should make it easy–only dogs (not pit bulls); only for veterans (show a DD214). For vets, we will always accommodate; for others, let them take the train or drive.

  8. More specific than I expected

    While I haven’t personally had to sit next to a large ESA my sense was a large portion of the owners used the rule to get around paying transport fees or pet sitting fees at home

  9. F*ck your ESA. If you have an actual disability – blind, deaf, etc, you get a service animal. Everything else? You’re either lying, or you have a mental disorder and shouldn’t be on the plane in the first place.

    Oh, it’s a pet? Limit two per flight and pay for a ticket.

  10. As the husband of a deaf wife who uses a hearing service dog, I have no issue with a ban of comfort or therapy dogs flying in the cabin. A service dog and psychiatric service dog are present to perform specific tasks for their masters, while comfort and therapy dogs are there to make those around them feel better. Another way of looking at the relationship between service and comfort or therapy dogs is attention is focused on the person with a service dog, while attention is focused on the dog of a person with a comfort or therapy dog. These new rules should reduce the number of “posers” on flights.

    I do have one concern regarding the proposed rules requiring service dogs “to fit into the passenger’s foot space.” Many service dogs are medium to large size dogs (Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, full-size Poodles, and German Shepherds often used for the blind) and do not fit “into the passenger’s foot space.” Even if the dog did fit “into the passenger’s foot space,” there is no way of preventing a dog’s tail from sticking out or keeping the dog from stretching during the flight. My wife always tries to get a bulkhead seat and the dog will lay along the bulkhead wall. If we are traveling together, I will usually take an adjacent middle seat (ugh!) to limit the dog’s infringement on another passenger’s foot space. When my wife travels alone with her service dog, she usually has no problems with adjacent passengers allowing the dog to stretch out in front of them. Most enjoy having the dog lay in front of them despite the fact they cannot pet the dog.

  11. Long overdue IMO.
    Look, if you can’t face flying without Cuddles to get you through it, that’s why there’s Greyhound and Amtrak.

  12. I was attacked by an “emotional support“ pit bull on a flight while picking up trash! I’m a flight attendant for United. Not only out of work for 6 monthes, but when I went back to work, the same dog was there again waiting to board! I guess one is going to have to attack or kill a pax before it stops!!

  13. The “training” thing is key. How much training will they require the service animal to have? Can I offer a one hour class in NYC for dog lovers and provide this “training”? I hope not! No one should have a problem with a properly trained service animal.

    I do wonder if there’s opportunity for an airline to profit from this prospective rule change. I think cabin pets are currently limited to 20 lbs, and must remain in their carriers. What about raising that weight limit and requiring the purchase of an extra seat (while still requiring the animal to stay in the carrier)? I’m not sure I’d love this change if I was seated in the same row as the larger dog, but the airline might love the extra revenue.

  14. +1 @DavidLevey.
    Remember how quickly the passenger lost his cool when the plane landed on the Hudson? He nearly sunk the plane because he panicked. With an ESA, he could have pretended to be on Noah’s Ark or in a Mr Roger’s puppet show, waiting for the Coast guard to rescue him and his pup.
    Seriously, if everyone brought their ESA, it could look like Noah’s Ark, except the plane would be overweight for takeoff. There have got to be limits.

  15. It’s just a few old grouches complaining. I don’t see an issue with support animals, provided people satisfy the guidelines. Personally, I wouldn’t have taken my dogs on a plane because they would have disliked it ( and probably try to snatch someone’s lunch)

  16. Why did this take so long? And why is it so hard for individuals to understand that the world does not revolve around them and their “ESAs”?
    Turkeys, snakes, peacocks etc. Really? Is this an issue the world over, or just in the Entitled States of America?
    Lock it up people: we are all in a beer can at 35,000ft and the whining dog under your seat is not helping Anyone, including yourself, be “emotionally supported” during this (for many) stressful experience.
    Two words: Dog Sitter. Two more: Ground Transportation

  17. ESA’s do not belong in airline cabins.
    Many animals are wonderful and calm at home, but when forced into the airport and airplane environment, can be frightened and bad results can happen. Have you seen the picture of that poor DL passenger that was attacked by a dog? That says it all. ESA’s are a health hazard to others; ESA’s dirty aircraft unnecessarily; ESA’s disturb those who are afraid of animals; ESA’s give others allergic fits. Passenger aircraft are for passengers, not pets. Cargo holds have carried pets successfully for years.
    The idea of a special area on planes for pets is a joke. Airlines would not give up one seat for that purpose and lose that potential revenue.
    Comment here: https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=DOT-OST-2018-0068-4724
    ESA’s should stay home.

  18. This I agree is a very controversial subject ! I personally have a legimate Esa letter supporting my need for my 8 lb Maltese. He is required to be close to me at all times.He senses my anxiety…and knows to calm me. He doesn’t bark…bite….or jump…and is just as dependent on me. He is either I a sling across my chest or on my lap ! Without him I would be forced to find other mode of transportation though this would be difficult due to also having spinal injury and can’t travel long distant by car.I am on social security disability. Im devastated to hear that once again a select few have once again ruined it for those who truely have a disability whether psychological or physical.Also I’m appalled by the ignorant comments made….obviously from those that don’t understand what it feels like to need the support. Regulatations need to be set regarding space…type and size of animals and also respect to those that have allergy’s but to disregard the rights of those with a disability to fly is unfair and against the ADA and discriminatory.

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