New DOT Rules for Emotional Support Animals: What Every ESA Owner Should Know
On December 2, 2020, the Department of Transportation announced that it is revising rules around flying with Emotional Support Animals. Airlines will no longer be required to recognize ESAs and provide reasonable accommodation in the flight cabin and/or free of charge. However, Service Animals (including Psychiatric Services Animals), who are trained to perform specific tasks associated with their owner’s disability, are still legally protected and eligible for those rights. The vast majority of ESAs are dogs, and dogs can be task-trained to perform many different functions. The new rule does not require Service Animal owners to incur the cost of training by third party schools or organizations. Owners are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.
Individual airlines will set their own policies, but they must conform to the DOT rules which go into effect 30 days after the final ruling is published in the Federal Register. The DOT has eluded to an early 2021 release, but an official date has not yet been announced. That said, there is still time to travel into the new year without changes. There are, of course, some unknown answers to questions regarding the new DOT rules for Emotional Support Animals. We did our best to address the ones we can below.
What do these new regulations mean for the future of ESA owners?
Can I still fly with my Emotional Support Animal in 2020?
If you travel before this revision takes effect sometime in 2021, airlines are legally required to accommodate ESAs. ESA owners will still need to present proper documentation within the guidelines of the chosen airline. Read more here.
If you travel after the revision is officially in place, airlines are no longer REQUIRED to accommodate your ESA unless they are trained appropriately and can be classified as a Psychiatric Service Animal. It is important to note that some airlines may still CHOOSE to acknowledge ESAs and offer ongoing provisions similar to those currently in place. As long as their policy complies with the DOT regulations, they have every right to make favorable determinations.
How are my Emotional Support Animal travel rights changing?
If you travel after the DOT revision is in place, you might be subject to large pet fees and additional restrictions. Airlines will be able to consider your Emotional Support Animal a regular pet and impose all of the rules and regulations that come with that. Unfortunately, this may involve ESAs flying in the cargo area along with the assessment of fees. More limiting rules and restrictions such as those pertaining to species, breed, size, and weight will also be a factor. The forms required for travel are being streamlined and will include a confirmation of animal behavior form.
Can the airlines still recognize my Emotional Support Animal in 2021?
If there is a silver lining, it is this. While the DOT revised their rules, mental health disabilities are still very much recognized by the ADA. Though stricter guidelines will be implemented for standard ESAs, Psychiatric Service Animals will be acknowledged and protected. It is ultimately at the airline’s discretion to choose to recognize ESAs (under the current protocol) as regular pets or as Emotional Support Animals. All airlines will have to decide where they stand on the matter and how it might impact their ESA owning customers. While some may criticize the need for ESAs, there is a massive community of people who need them to travel. Again, there may be some carriers that continue business as usual in regards to ESA travel. It is best to research your preferred airline and follow their updated policies to keep informed.
Although everything is still being sorted, it is our hope that some of the airlines capitalize on the opportunity to gain new travelers by understanding and accommodating Emotional Support Animal owners and their needs.
Have ESA owners lost all protection?
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) provides direct protections for living accommodations with an Emotional Support Animal. The FHA is a Federal law that allows exceptions to “no-pet” policies for individuals needing an assistance animal in their home. According to the FHA, an assistance animal is “an animal that works, provides assistance, performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.” Suppose you have a qualifying mental health disability. In that case, the FHA requires that landlords and leasing agents help ensure that your ESA is allowed to remain living with you for free.