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8 questions about flying with emotional support animals, answered


The age of free-flying emotional support animals is ending as most major airlines, enabled by new Department of Transportation rules, crack down on which critters can fly and how.

American, Delta, United, JetBlue, Spirit, Alaska and Frontier are among the carriers that have said they will no longer allow emotional support animals. Southwest “will announce any changes to our current policies in the near future,” the airline said this week.

“Southwest applauds the U.S. Department of Transportation for issuing a new final rule that imposes common-sense limits on the transport of animals in the aircraft cabin,” a statement from the airline said.

The changes come after years of complaints that travelers were bringing poorly trained and sometimes poorly behaved pets on flights by getting them certified as providers of emotional support — a process for which there has been a robust online marketplace. In some cases, passengers brought pigs, monkeys, ducks and other unusual creatures; one owner of a peacock famously tried but failed to bring her charge on board.

More than a million people flew on U.S. airlines with emotional support animals in 2018, according to the industry group Airlines for America.

The new rules went into effect this week, but the airlines that have adopted the changes have set different dates for when they will stop allowing the animals to fly. American says only trained service animals can fly in the cabin starting Feb. 1, while United will stop letting emotional support animals fly after Feb. 28. Carriers are not honoring new requests for emotional support animals as of Jan. 11.

But what does that mean for travelers?

A trained service dog lies patiently at their owner's feet during a training exercise inside a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2017. (Julio Cortez/AP)

What animals are allowed to fly freely in the cabin?

Once airline rule changes go into effect, only trained service dogs will be allowed to fly without charge and without being in a carrier. Those that were considered “comfort” or “emotional support” animals — dogs, ducks, rabbits or others — will no longer be allowed on planes without a cost or without being in a carrier. Some may be brought on under existing pet policies.

What if I have a letter from a doctor?

This no longer matters to airlines that have changed their policies under the new DOT rules. They are now focused on the specific training of the dog, not the need of the human — even if a mental health professional attests to it.

What is a trained service dog?

According to the Department of Transportation, these dogs are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.” That includes physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Justice says that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, examples of that work include guiding people who are blind, alerting those who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair and protecting someone who is having a seizure.

“Service animals are working animals, not pets,” the department says.

But the DOT does note that its rule doesn’t require the owners of service animals to have the training done by third-party schools or groups.

“Service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them,” the agency says.

How do I prove that my service animal meets the requirements?

Travelers must fill out a DOT form attesting to the dog’s health, training and behavior at least 48 hours before their flight, if they have their ticket by then. That form asks for the name of the person or organization that trained the animal as well as a phone number, and it requires passengers to check a box saying they understand that if they knowingly make false statements, they can be subject to fines and other penalties.

Owners also have to acknowledge that if the animal demonstrates behavior showing it “has not been property trained to behave in public,” it will be treated as a pet and subject to fees and other pet requirements.

Airlines may make a ruling about whether the dog’s training is adequate. American Airlines says employees are trained “to ask certain questions to determine if your animal is a service animal acceptable for travel.” And JetBlue says crew members who observe behavior “can provide further determination of training or lack thereof.”

So how do I fly with my emotional support animal now?

If the animal meets the airline’s requirements for flying as a pet in the cabin, you can bring it on board as if it were a carry-on item. But only certain types of animals qualify — typically dogs and cats, but sometimes also household birds or domestic rabbits, depending on the airline. They must be small enough to move around in a carrier that fits under the seat, and they have to stay in the carrier while on the plane. Airlines only allow a certain number of pets per flight.

Larger pets would only be able to fly as cargo, but not all airlines carry pets as checked items.

Will I have to pay?

Yes. To bring a pet in the cabin, the cost ranges from $99 each way on Frontier to $125 on American, Delta, United and JetBlue.

A service dog strolls through the aisle of a United Airlines plane at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2017. (Julio Cortez/AP)

I have a trained service dog; what are the requirements?

Airlines are requiring service dog owners to fill out DOT forms with information about the animal’s health, training, and behavior and turn them in 48 hours in advance. For flights longer than eight hours, owners also have to fill out a form confirming that the dog would either not need to relieve itself or could do so on the plane “without creating a health/sanitation issue.”

Carriers are allowed to require a service dog to either fit on a handler’s lap or within their foot space on the floor. Dogs have to be harnessed or leashed and be well-behaved.

My service animal is not a dog. Am I out of luck?

Yes. The transportation department said it decided against adopting a proposal that would have let other species, including capuchin monkeys and miniature horses, fly as service animals.

“Overall, dogs have the temperament and ability to be trained to do work and perform tasks while behaving appropriately in a public setting, and while being surrounded by a large group of people in the close confines of an aircraft cabin,” the department said in its final rule. “Although airlines may choose to transport other species of animals, such as cats, miniature horses, and capuchin monkeys, that assist individuals with disabilities in the cabin for free ... they would only be required under federal law to recognize trained dogs as service animals.”

Read more:

Department of Transportation proposes ban on emotional support animals on planes

If emotional support animals are banned from planes, some people say they’ll stop flying

Service and support animals explained

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