Plane Travel with an ESA by Amy Adams |Published 01-29-2021
The public perception of service animals and emotional support animals might not make much of a distinction between the two, but in most cases they actually have very different roles.
Interestingly enough, airlines have also made very little distinction between service animals and ESAs; this is because they follow the definitions used by the Air Carrier Access Act, and not the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For years, ESAs and service animals have been in the same category when it comes to air travel; as such, the main requirement the owner had to comply with was additional documentation from a mental healthcare provider that verified the status and purpose of the animal.
About a year ago, the DOT announced that it would be changing the regulations regarding service animals and air travel. The changes covered several points:
The definition of a “service animal” would be updated. This is where the biggest change will be for ESA owners – the new definition is much more specific, and excludes their animals from the “service animal” status they had before.
The new definition specifies that the service animal is a dog, and states that it should have received training for a task that will mitigate the effects of their owner’s disability. This disability could be physical, psychiatric, sensory, or intellectual; the main thing is that the dog has been trained to help with it.
Since ESAs don’t typically receive training to do their jobs, this effectively rules them out. Now that airlines won’t consider them to be service animals anymore, the new regulations will consider ESAs to be essentially the same as ordinary pets.
The term is “service animal”, but what it will really mean is “service dog”. Yes, some trained service animals are actually miniature horses, but most of them are dogs, and according to the DOT, dogs are the only species that will be allowed to board airplanes under the new regulations.
This means that airlines will be able to deny entry not only to miniature horses, but also rabbits, birds, cats, pigs, and every other species that the current rules support.
Along with the new definitions, there will be new document requirements. The DOT has announced that it will now require three documents for each service animal; no more additional paperwork for owners of psychiatric service animals.
There will be one document that certifies that the animal is healthy; a second document that guarantees the training and good behavior of the animal; and a third document stating that the animal has been trained on how to relieve itself appropriately in a public situation.
The DOT will give airlines the option to require earlier check-in for service animals for paperwork processing and observation.
Even though the new regulations would be eliminating a lot of unruly animals from the passenger area, it’s still the responsibility of the airline to make sure that they don’t allow animals to board if they could pose a threat to the other passengers.
With that in mind, airlines might require service animal owners to present their animals and paperwork up to one hour prior to general check-in, so that the staff can check that the paperwork is in order, and confirm that the animal isn’t aggressive or out-of-control.
Check-in requirements vary from airline to airline, but ESA owners might have to give up to 48 hours’ notice if they’ll be taking their animal onto the plane.
Airlines would be able to limit the size and number of service animals brought on by one passenger. There aren’t currently any limitations on the size or weight of service animals (including ESAs), but the updated regulations would require each service animal to fit on their owner’s lap or underneath their seat. Each person could also bring no more than two service animals with them on a flight.
Service animal owners will have to restrain their animals appropriately. This could mean a harness or any kind of leash; the main thing is that the service animal isn’t allowed to roam freely throughout the plane cabin.
If an animal is clearly disruptive, aggressive, or hyperactive, it won’t be allowed onto a plane no matter what its technical status is.
Airlines won’t be allowed to exclude certain breeds of animals, but they’ll continue to exclude certain species.
Currently, airlines don’t allow reptiles, snakes, rodents, spiders, or sugar gliders onto planes.
The new rules aren’t in effect yet – what documents do I need for my ESA under the current regulations?
You’ll need three documents, and probably the most important one is the letter you’ll need from your mental healthcare provider. This letter should have the following characteristics:
The second document you’ll need will come from your support animal’s veterinarian. The form should be less than one year old; it should include information on:
This document should include a statement from the vet regarding the suitability of the animal for plane travel. For certain animals, the vet might recommend additional measures like a crate or a muzzle, or they might say that the animal should be crated and put in with the cargo.
Since a vet will know the animal’s behavior patterns much better than airline staff, these recommendations are important to have.
Lastly, the vet’s contact information and license details should be on the document.
This would include the type and date of license, the license number, the issuing authority of the license, the veterinary practice’s email address and phone number, as well as the name/signature of the veterinarian.
The third letter you’ll need is a guarantee of good behavior. It isn’t required by every airline, and there’s no standard format to follow; essentially, it’s documentation that your support animal has received some kind of training on how to act in public.
It’s your personal guarantee that you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure that your animal won’t be a nuisance to other passengers. This will probably include a certificate of training, and your personal contact information.
Each airline has its own requirements on when to turn in these forms, so make sure you check at least a week beforehand so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises the day of your trip.
Various travel authorities and airlines can impose regulations that’ll weed out the worst-behaved animals, but at the end of the day, your animal is your responsibility.
Even if you know you can comply with the requirements, there’s still a question of whether or not you can keep your animal from bothering the other passengers. If you aren’t sure what that entails, here are a few tips:
With story after story about problematic ESAs making their rounds on the internet, the public eye is definitely focused on support animals.
The new regulations might feel a little reactionary, but this is the solution we’re getting. The best any ESA owner can do is not only make sure they’re complying with the regulations, but also ensure that their animal has the right training and temperament for stressful plane travel.
With some thoughtfulness and planning ahead, everyone involved – including support animals – can have a much better travel experience.
Amy Adams is an animal lover and community outreach person for the National Service Animal Registry. She has an 8-year old yellow lab named Girl and they love to canoe together. When Amy isn't working with animals or Girl, she likes to read classical literature and write.