US Department of Transportation Issues New Rules for Service, Emotional Support Animals
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
On Thursday afternoon, the Department of Transportation issued a final policy statement for service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs). In this policy statement, the DOT is explicitly explaining what types of policies it will and won’t allow.
As the number of emotional support animals in aircraft seem to be an ever-growing problem, airlines such as Alaska, American, Delta, Spirit, Southwest and United have tightened rules regarding ESAs. The DOT says that it’s not taking any action against airlines that have required documentation related to vaccination, training or behavior.
The DOT will continue to monitor these policies but is indicating that it won’t act “so long as it is reasonable to believe that the documentation would assist the airline in making a determination as to whether an animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
In the final policy statement, the agency specifically addressed certain topics:
Species Limitations: The DOT will prioritize that “commonly recognized service animals” such as dogs, cats and miniature horses are accepted for transport. However, airlines could face enforcement action for “categorically” refusing to transport other species as service animals.
- Many airlines (Alaska, American, Southwest, United) current limit emotional support animals to dogs and cats and limit service animals to dogs, cats and miniature horses. These seemingly will need to change to avoid “categorically” refusing to transport other species.
Breed/Species Restrictions: The Enforcement Office “intends to use available resources to ensure that dogs as a species are accepted for transport.” Airlines aren’t allowed to ban entire breeds — such as pit bulls — although they may refuse to carry a specific animal if it’s found to pose a threat.
- Delta’s current service animal policy bans “pit bull type” dogs, so this policy will need to be modified. Delta told The Associated Press that it was reviewing the DOT’s guidance.
Documentation Requirements: DOT will not take action against an airline if it requires passengers to provide advance documentation of a service animal’s vaccination, training or behavior. However, the department will step in if documentation is used to “unduly restrict passengers with disabilities from traveling with their service animals.”
Containment: Airlines are allowed to set their own containment rules as long as they are reasonable. The DOT points to “tethering and similar means of controlling an animal” as reasonable containment rules.
Advance Notice: Airlines are prohibited from requiring advance notice for passengers traveling with service animals as this notice “may significantly harm passengers with disabilities” as it prevents these passengers from making last-minute travel plans necessary for work or family emergencies. However, airlines are allowed to require advanced notice for emotional support animals (ESAs) and psychiatric support animals (PSAs).
- Many airlines (Alaska, AA, Delta, Spirit, United) require passengers traveling with ESAs or PSAs to file paperwork 48 hours or more before departure
Check-In Requirements: Airlines aren’t allowed to force passengers with service animals to check in at the counter. However, the Enforcement Office is fine with airlines requiring passengers to check-in ESAs and PSAs at the counter. The DOT notes that regulations permit airlines to require ESA and PSA users to check in one hour before the check-in time for the general public.
Proof That an Animal Is a Service Animal: Generally, airlines are allowed to “seek credible verbal assurance” that a passenger has a disability and the animal is a service animal. Further, airlines may ask the passenger questions “to determine the passenger’s need for the animal” — even if the animal has a harness, vest or tag.
Number of Service Animals Per Passenger: Recognizing that “a passenger may reasonably need more than one task-trained service animal,” the DOT isn’t setting a limit on how many service animals may travel with a passenger with a disability. Instead, the department will focus on making sure airlines allow passengers to travel with “one ESA and a total of three service animals if needed.” The policy states “generally one ESA should be sufficient for emotional support.”
- Most airlines (Alaska, AA, Delta, Southwest) currently limit passengers to one ESA
- Spirit limits the number of trained service animals to three per person
Number of Service Animals per Aircraft: Airlines aren’t allowed to deny transport to a service animal accompanying a passenger with a disability by limiting the total number of service animals that can be on any flight. And this includes emotional support animals.
Weight Restrictions: Airlines are allowed to deny transport to a service animal that is too large or too heavy to be accommodated in the cabin. However, airlines aren’t allowed to enforce a “categorical ban on animals over a certain weight limit, regardless of the type of aircraft for the flight.”
- United currently bans ESAs that weight more than 65 pounds, a regulation that presumably will need to be dropped.
Age Restrictions: The Enforcement Office will generally allow airlines to “prohibit the transport of service animals younger than four months” as all service animals (including ESAs) are expected to be trained to behave in public.
- Most airlines (AA, Delta, Spirit, United) have restrictions in place to forbid service animals under four months. No changes should be required.
Flight-Length Restrictions: For flights scheduled for eight hours or longer, airlines are able to require that passengers provide documentation “that the animal will not need to relieve itself on the flight or that it can do so in a way that does not create a health or sanitation issue on the flight.” However, the Enforcement Office will step in if such regulations are used to effectively prohibit service animals (including ESAs) on flights lasting eight or more hours.
- Current Delta and United policies forbids ESAs on flights over eight hours, so it’s likely that these policies will need to be changed
Mental Health Professional Form: Airlines are allowed to require passengers to provide “medical documentation of their need for the animal” for emotional support animals and psychiatric support animals. However, airlines aren’t allowed to reject a form that “meets the criteria found in the rule because of an airline’s preference that the passenger use the airline’s form.”
Featured image by mauinow1 via Getty Images
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees