ESAs Adjust to 2021 DOT Regulations for Plane Travel


In February of 2019, the US Department of Transportation announced that they were going to revise the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). These are the regulations that airlines follow when it comes to both service animals and emotional support animals; it used to include them both within the same definition, but that’s now changed. After nearly two years of research and consideration by the DOT, the new rules took effect on January 11, 2021.

What Changes Mean For Airline Passengers

What do the changes mean for airplane passengers who’ll be taking along their ESA or service animal? The National Service Animal Registry says that recent updates affect animals in both categories, but the biggest change applies to ESAs. Under the old regulations, they could board planes without being in a crate, and with no fees involved. Now, they have to abide by the same requirements as normal pets, which will likely prevent many people with ESAs from traveling by air.

Service animals can still board planes without fees or crates, but there are some new limitations for them as well. Miniature horses, sometimes used as service animals, will no longer be permitted to come onboard the plane. This is because of another rule – any service animals that someone brings have to stay within the passenger’s personal space. Since most miniature horses weigh 100+ pounds, this definitely rules them out.

Service animal owners have to observe a limit of no more than two dogs, and they’ll be required to use a harness while in the airport or plane. Handlers of psychiatric service dogs should be happy, at least; they won’t have to worry about any additional documentation for their animal like before. Instead, they’ll be filling out the same forms that the DOT wants every service dog owner to use. The US Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form and the US Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation assure the airline that 1) the animal is a service animal, and 2) it’s been trained to properly relieve itself if the need arises.

ESA owners are of the opinion that public backlash had too much influence on the DOT’s new rules. For example, the old rules were pretty much an acknowledgment of how necessary ESAs can be to their owners – that’s why they got included in the ACAA to begin with. ESAs aren’t any less necessary now, are they? Shouldn’t their owners at least be able to avoid the fees? If there’s any middle ground between service animals and regular pets, the DOT didn’t include it in the new rules.

In order to understand where this is coming from, a little background is necessary. When ESAs were first allowed onto airplanes, it was because the DOT changed their definition of “service animal” to include any animal that gives emotional support. Most accepted definitions don’t include ESAs, so the DOT’s definition was unique. What people know as “service animals” are highly trained dogs (sometimes miniature horses) that know how to perform a very particular task to assist their owner.

The focus of the training is important – they have to be trained for the purpose of assistance, not just generally well-trained. They can also be registered as service animals, while there’s no comparable registry for ESAs. This is mainly what caused the issue – that ESAs won’t necessarily have training of any kind. This isn’t really a problem in everyday life, since the way they help their owners is more about the connection they share. Throw them into a crowded plane cabin, though, and that’s a different story. Anything could happen, from the animal getting nervous and making too much noise, to freaking out and biting someone. Some animals were well-behaved, but they caused a bad allergic reaction. This certainly didn’t happen with every ESA, but it was enough of them to get peoples’ attention.

Given the overall lack of any possible certification or registry for ESAs, the DOT mandated a different form of authentication. It was a letter, supplied by the passenger’s mental healthcare provider, essentially saying “I told them they needed an ESA, and this is the animal they decided to get”. What nobody could have realized at the time is that these psychiatrist’s letters are quite easy to forge. Add the internet, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a tendency to ignore rules, and you’re helping supply the market for get-out-of-the-cargo-hold-free cards. For many pet owners, it was perfect. Not only could they save money, but they also didn’t have to worry about their pet while it was in the airline’s care.

At around the same time, news sites were picking up on some of the more bizarre ESAs that had been seen on planes. People would take pictures of the support miniature horses, monkeys, pigs, turkeys, and even a support kangaroo. If people already felt like airlines were letting ESAs run around unchecked, the variety of strange or unfamiliar species only made it worse. Somehow it’s probably easier to handle an annoying dog than it is to handle an annoying pig – it’s not exactly fair, but that’s just what happens sometimes.

Airlines were getting increasingly worried about the effect that ESAs were having on their reputations. Passengers were more vocal than ever about their negative experiences involving ESAs, and it seemed like they were losing trust in the airlines’ commitment to ensuring a smooth flight. What exactly were they supposed to do about it, though? They could prohibit a handful of species, prevent aggressive animals from boarding, and turn away animals that were too big – that was it.

The DOT finally responded to the situation with some concrete changes, but plenty of people feel like it’s an overreaction. One thing is for sure – if it took that long to change the rules in response to the passengers of every major airline in the US, it’ll take even longer to respond to the small but vocal minority of ESA owners and advocates. In the meantime, the best option is to just make do and hope for the best.
Visit our page on the latest emotional support animal registration regulations.