Spirit, Frontier and JetBlue join rush to ban emotional support animals
Gone are the days of packing an emotional support hamster, goldfish or mini horse on your next flight.
Spirit and Frontier are the latest airlines to designate dogs as the only acceptable species of service animals on board, formally relegating emotional support animals to "pet" status on flights.
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"All emotional support animals are now welcome onboard as pets if they meet our pet requirements found here," the carrier announced on its customer support page.
Frontier Airlines made the same move in a Monday afternoon announcement, saying its change is "in line with new regulations recently issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)."
Alaska Airlines was the first carrier to reflect updated DOT guidelines on Dec. 29, quickly followed by the "Big 3" U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — in early January 2021. JetBlue also recently updated its animal travel policy.
Related: Your guide to ethically traveling with an emotional support animal
In the final days of 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) ruled that emotional support animals (ESAs) will no longer be considered service animals moving forward, amending an Air Carrier Access Act loophole which often allowed travelers to bypass paying pet fees for air travel.
“This final rule is intended to ensure that our air transportation system is safe for the traveling public and accessible to individuals with disabilities," the DOT stated in the ruling published on Dec. 2, 2020, which went into effect 30 days after date of publication in the Federal Register.
Service dogs must still meet a host of requirements before being allowed on board, according to the DOT; airlines retain the right to refuse boarding to any aggressive animal and its owner, regardless of service designation.
Related: TPG's complete guide to traveling with pets
Service animals are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” as defined in the DOT's Dec. 2 statement. In contrast, people hoping to earn ESA status for their pet simply need a doctor's note stating that the animal is medically necessary for the owner's comfort and support.
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The ESA loophole surged in popularity in recent years, as airlines began to increase travel fees for everything from seat selection to checked baggage. Travelers discovered that designating their pets as emotional support animals was a handy way to avoid paying pet fees, which can exceed $100 on a one-way domestic flight.
However, a number of issues have arisen from untrained animals enjoying service animal privileges. Animals have attacked passengers on flights. One notorious incident occurred when United Airlines denied boarding to a traveler who tried to bring an emotional support peacock on a flight departing from Newark International Airport (EWR). The exploitation reached a peak in recent years, with lawmakers, airlines and many travelers uniting in outcry against the lax policies.
That being said, animal lovers can still get their furry fix in some airports that offer trained therapy animals to help soothe anxious travelers.