New Rules Could Be Coming to Limit Emotional Support Animals Onboard

Earlier in the year Hollywood Report said this is the golden age of flying thanks to the ability of anyone — Hollywood star or not — bring their emotional support turkey on a plane. For free.

I’ve taken my Yorkshire Terrier on a few flights over the years but not in quite some time. He fits just fine under the seat and simply goes to sleep for most of the flight. He gets a thorough walk before and after, and I’ve timed flights with his usual nap times. Other passengers remark at the end of the flight when he comes out from underneath that they didn’t even know he was there.

Registrations of service animals rose from about 2400 five years ago to over 20,000 last year.

We have a really strange bifurcated system now where you have to pay ~ $150 each way to take a pet on board and they have to remain in a carrier throughout the flight. But call that same pet an emotional support ‘service animal’ and they can come out of the carrier and don’t cost anything.

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities, and thus they must make reasonable accommodations for them which allow them to fly — like having access to their emotional support animals.

While in theory they don’t have to allow any animal that would be disruptive to the flight, there’s legal risk in a flight attendant or even captain making that decision on the spot.

There’s currently no firm rules or safe harbors for airlines to dispute a claim that an animal is necessary as a reasonable disability accommodation, but that’s under review by a Department of Transportation Committee.

The LA Times covers meetings of the Accessible Air Transportation advisory committee that will be wrapping up. Airlines and disability rights groups have been in discussions over what animals ought to be permitted onboard, and what documentation ought to be required.

  • One position, held by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, is that dogs, rabbits, and cats should be permitted.

  • The Autistic Self Advocacy Network wants to include birds as well, but is opening to banning ducks, turkeys, and chickens.

  • Requiring a doctor’s note is controversial because it “would be stigmatizing.”

  • The position of airlines, reportedly, is that only “dogs and miniature horses” should be allowed as service animals and that these emptional support horses (and dogs) should be kept in carriers throughout the flight.

Apparently no one is advocating for emotional support pigs or for monkeys. Although there’s a whole different set of rules for animals who are celebrities.

Six months of meetings wrap up in October, although it’s not clear yet whether there will be a consensus or whether their recommendations will lead to adoption of rule changes.

Have emotional support animal claims gotten out of control? Are people taking advantage? What should be done about it?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. It’s impossible to legislate a solution that straddles the line perfectly across-the-board. Support animals should be a policy left to the airlines, where customer’s can choose to fly on whichever flight is/isn’t inundated with animals. It would also give the airlines opportunities to collect more fees.

  2. “I’ve taken my Yorkshire Terrier on a few flights over the years but not in quite some time. He fits just fine under the seat and simply goes to sleep for most of the flight.”

    Never pooped nor peed like the others, right?

  3. It’s out of control. I know of more than one person at work who doesn’t have any special needs and who paid roughly $75 online to get their pet certified as an “emotional support” animal so that they can bring them to places like the office, into cabs, etc. I highly suspect that a growing number of air travelers are resorting to this tactic as well.

  4. Airlines aside, its an increasing gimmick by tenants who rent, landlord can’t charge pet fees/deposits if tenant has “documentation” it’s an emotional support animal.

  5. I do qualify for a REAL emotional support animal, and I am sick and tired of the “I just need to pay off a website doctor and I get to bring my pet for free” argument. The worst case scenario would be not allowing the truly disabled (whether a physical, mental, or medical disability) to bring part of their support system with them because of the abusers of the system. I don’t currently have a therapy dog, and if I do get one, I will make sure it is trained and able to be handled in any public situation. Biggest point – yes, a letter may be seen as “stigmatizing” to the passenger needing the emotional support animal, but it can cut down, significantly, on abusers, as the majority of those of us who truly need the ESA already have a doctor who can provide the letter. Just my 2 cents.

  6. The result of more rules or prohibitions around emotional support animals on planes will be more disruptions, more flight diversions, more delays, and more law enforcement having to meet planes at the gate because a passenger without their emotional support animal has a breakdown and flips out on the plane.

  7. Stop the fake ESA madness! 99% of the animals free-roaming on flights are FAKE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMALS. Just hop on any JFK-LAX route… home of the most entitled people on earth in LA and NYC. I was on one flight LAX-JFK about a year ago that had EIGHT ESAs and 2 “regular” pets. I’m severely allergic to dogs, and I’ve had to offload myself and rebook no less than THREE times off an American Airlines Airbus A321T because of fake ESAs. One even licked my leg as it sauntered down the aisle, totally unrestrained, and totally untrained. I hope the DOT comes to some resolution whereby there is a severe penalty ($10,000+ fine plus revocation of medical license) for any physician who falsely certifies an ESA. It’s absolutely OUT OF CONTROL. They need to do something about it…yesterday. Glad the media are picking up on this albatross of entitlement and loophole exploitation.

  8. Here’s one partial solution: Require payment of a $200 fee. Reimburse the fee if the customer submits a certified statement of medical need which includes the physician’s license number. Investigate physicians who certify more than 50 emotional support animals.

    Make abusing this system hard. Right now it’s much too easy.

  9. Those of us with pet allergies are effected by this recent scam to fly your animal free in the cabin. I don’t mind service animals for the blind and such, but wish some of those other turkeys would take another flight.

  10. If somebody brings their support chicken, duck or turkey on the plane, especially in Economy, the other passengers should have a right to cook it up and eat it. It would probably be worlds better than what they currently serve on the flights.

  11. @DJ — That’s classic, especially since a spouse is probably more likely to be able to provide real in-flight emotional support than a chihuahua.

    I guess the catch is that even though your wife might be an animal, she probably doesn’t fit on your lap, at your feet or under your seat. So then you’d still need to buy her a seat.

  12. @Melissa he has never “pooped nor peed” on the plane, no. I didn’t take him on super long flights, walked him before and after, gave him a chance to go during connections when applicable.

  13. People who suffer from physical disabilities learn quickly that our options are limited. My eyesight prevents me from driving although it’s quite good enough for most other everyday tasks. It also prevents me from exit rows although I could disguise it for the increased comfort. Still my inability to judge distances would present a danger to other passengers as I am partially blind in one eye, the other compensates well but there is no way in quick judgment situations I can be depended on. Hence no driving or exit rows for me. I wish it weren’t the case but there you are.

    The whole support animal system is widely abused, including that the efficacy of emotional support animals as therapy is contested.

    Another passenger’s very real physical allergies to animal dander, including well behaved Yorkies, trumps the convenience of having your pet in a cabin with recirculated air making the problem worse. People can and do die from allergy induced asthma attacks.

    Airlines stand out in their willingness to handle passengers with real disabilities including people who are blind, deaf, mobility impaired and even obese. They should not be forced to accommodate an easily abused and questionably effective demand to quell anxiety about flying. That falls on the sufferer.

    People whose emotional disabilities leave them unable to fly without a support animal need to acknowledge that some handicaps cannot be overcome, and that a solution that significantly endangers others is not a solution. If your anxiety is too great to allow you to fly, you can’t fly. Accepting the limitations imposed by a handicap is a strong factor in learning to live and thrive with a handicap and that includes both physical and emotional handicaps.

  14. If someone has a legitimate need for an ESA then they already have a doctor’s note or should have access to one. This should be required to cut back on those trying to get by without paying the fee.

  15. there should be no pets in the cabin EVER. the effect on the MILLIONS of people who have real and severe pet allergies last well past the flight. PC is so out of control on so many levels in this country it’s ridiculous- self obsessed scammers taking advantage of crazy liberal rulings and playing them to the hilt. i’ve been in first class with a 200 pound slobering, farting- yes, farting morbidly obese dander factory ’emotional support animal’ with the entire cabin crew kissing the owner’s ass the whole trip while this scam made me sick- not pretend sick, not emotional support sick… SICK SICK.

    this is no different than smoking in the cabin- it’s a health issue.

  16. As incomprehensible as it is to pet owners, not everyone loves dogs. In fact, dogs are the cause of anxiety for many people.

  17. I see a pattern with many of the ESA owners: typically they belong to the overweight, your typical “cat ladies” and entitled first classers. Or a combination of these traits.

    Airlines should require proper documentation, doctor approved. Actual service animals for the disabled should be registered in a database when taking up service with their owners. Everyone else pay up!

  18. The entire emotional support animal issue needs to be regulated. It will be very interesting to see if medical notes are required since in the past, the DOJ upon information and belief, previously deemed this requirement was not permissible when an NYC stadium required medical documentation for accessible seating. Again, it was people who abused the system at high profile events that led the stadium to request medical notes. Yet, the DOJ determined that only the type of accommodation could be requested and not proof of disability.

    Emotional support animals are an issue for people with allergies. At what point does a person’s right for emotional support get to impinge another person’s right to not have an allergy or life-threatening asthma attack?

    One of the reasons people abuse the system is because of how poorly animals are treated below the airplane. There are far too many animal deaths which is part of what is causing people to ‘fake’ emotional support animals to ensure their animals arrive at their destination unharmed. If the care and treatment of transporting animals was improved, perhaps we would see less abuse to the system?

    The people who abuse the system for their own personal good should be ashamed of themselves. There are people who need emotional support animals and there are people who don’t. Anyone who fakes a disability for their own personal advantage should remember that karma doesn’t forget…

    Janice Schacter Lintz, CEO, Hearing Access & Innovations

  19. I have an ESA and would be in favor of a rule requiring the doctor (not social worker or other “mental health professional” like a guidance counselor, etc) to have seen the patient in person and to attest to that in the note. That alone would cut down on abuse significantly.

  20. @Abby: How dare you refer to me that way….and besides my farts don’t stink.
    I mean, WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM? IT’S JUST AIR BLOWING ACROSS MY SHI*.
    Seriously , the Air Carrier Access Act applies . It is interpreted to favor someone with an ESA over someone with an allergy.
    The issue about ESA’s is the implementing regulations are intended to apply not merely to needing the animal to fly, but needing it at the destination. If I’m going somewhere for months, the dog is coming, and I have a valid letter from a shrink.
    I’ve never received a complaint. The only negative response was a dirty look from a US Air FA on a flight from PHL_TLV in business class. The other FA must have known the first FA was pissed, because she proactively apologized for her behavior.
    @jasonhatesesa’s: We don;t need MORE regulations, and there is no way to determine if a shrink’s letter is “valid” as long as he or she validly wrote it. Do you propose letting the government analyze everything someonehas told their doctor to determine in they have a valid ESA?
    @Steve:It’s not a gimmick by tenants. ESA’s are NOT allowed in rentals that exclude pets. The Hair Housing Act applies. That act doesn’t even require a letter. All the tenant has to do is say it’s a service animal. There’s no registration. Anybody carrying a service animal registration card bought it off the internet or printed it themselves. Same for harnesses that say, “Service Animal”

    And if my ESA licks your leg, you probably didn’t take a decent shower.

  21. I’m with DJ – my wife will be my emotional support animal & fly for free, screw the useless Delta Reserve & AMEX Platinum companion passes. Ooooo, just had a bad thought, what if the FA says my wife has to fit under the seat?!!

  22. Lots of great comments and ideas. As a middle class landlord I have been exploited by the current system. I’m glad the wealthy flying class is being inconvenienced because with their leverage they may bring sanity to an out of control situation.

  23. I flew JFK-LAX and a woman had two yorkies, both with ESA vests jumping all over the seat. I think that’s too much.

  24. Airlines can still comply with the actual rules, just start charging $150 dollars for emotional support, services dogs and so on.

  25. Emotional support animal? What nonsense. If you have a documented disability or condition, no sweat by all means bring whatever assistance animal you need, but the vast majority of these people are gaming the system and are too cheap or are entitled clowns. If you can afford a ticket, you can afford the fee to fly with an animal. Pretending to be someone of need in order to be selfish is disgusting and gives those with legitimate needs a bad name/tougher time.

  26. Only in America! That is all I can say. I live in Europe and work for a European airline. We do not have these silly emotional support animals. We have blind/deaf guide dogs and they are trained to be just that. If you want your pet in cabin, pay for it!

  27. This is garbage. Emotional support animals? Give me a break. Its cheap skates who don’t want to pay and everyone needs to ride with these animals like they are in some sort of cattle car. The only animals that should be in the cabin are real service animals.

  28. If we can register for handicap parking, we should be able to register emotional support animals.

    It isn’t fair to the thousands of people with legitimate needs who get disrespected because so many people obnoxiously exploit this loophole.

  29. The US has the highest number of handicapped people in the world. Is that because Americans lead particularly dangerous lives or have particularly unlucky genes or is it because we have provided so many facilities to handicapped people that people have started gaming the system? Dont want to search for a parking spot get a handicapped placard for arthritis (never mind you play golf each week), no more welfare? Claim Disability Benefits for Backpain, Dont want to pay a pet fee? Claim the pet is an emotional support animal (all pets make us happy which is an emotion).
    No wonder the statistics are screwed up. We do a disservice to genuinely handicapped folks when we make the system such that it is a benefit for people who would be considered non handicapped a generation back to be considered disabled now.

  30. There were three dogs on my flight from PHL to SAN last Friday morning and one dog I’m quite certain outweighed me (I weigh 115). The big one, which was near where I was seated farted the entire six hour flight. Nothing like smelling dog shit for hours on end and actually paying the price of a ticket for the privilege. The FAs tell you to write to the airline and complain. It’s out of control.

    And what about people who are allergic to animals???? Does someone’s need for “emotional support” trump the physical health of a child seated near the animal? They got rid of peanuts on flights years ago because of the risk to children with allergic reactions. But animals get a pass?

  31. There’s a misconception that ESA is covered by the ADA, it is not. If the animal is not a service animal that is trained to do a specific job, it is not covered under the ADA and documentation from a licensed professional can be requested. It’s the lack of knowledge of what the ADA and other disability statues covers that has allowed this issue to go on unchecked.

  32. My wife has asthma, and several physicians have attested to the fact (after allergen testing) that dog and cat dander is a primary trigger. If she has an attack while on board, the pilot will likely need to set the plane down somewhere unscheduled to keep her alive.

    This is an ADA condition that requires a reasonable accommodation by the airlines, under the same regulations as those used by people with ESA’s. And, an ADA physical condition should take precedence.

    Now what? Telling us to take a different flight (and charging for the change, as one airline once tried to do) is not a reasonable accommodation. And DOT is useless.

  33. @Donna said : Does someone’s need for “emotional support” trump the physical health of a child seated near the animal?

    What an interesting question. If only there were a way to find an answer to it. http://www.lmgtfy.com

  34. It appears that the readers here want regulation of ESA. FAA / DOT need to do the right thing and provide the airlines with the regulations that they can use for passengers to know what to expect on the plane, documentation needed to bring a ESA on the plane and what the fee will be if there is no such documentation. They also need to take into account ADA for those with allergies when there are ESA on the plane. (dogs go to the back of the bus)

    1. Notice to airline 48 hours prior to closing
    2. Written notice from licensed mental professional with a copy of their license dated within 6-12 months before the flight (including return flight)
    3. Passenger must have with them proof of rabies vaccine et
    4. Passenger must show animal is registered with the city town they live in. or provide proof no registration is required.
    5. Passenger must sign and have notarized affidavit that the animal has never attacked or bitten another animal / human and that the animal is potty trained and accepts financial responsibility for all damages from such animal.
    6. Animal must be on a leash at all times

    If not the passenger pays a fee

  35. I do agree with restricting emotional pets to dogs, cats and rabbits. However, if the airlines didn’t charge so much (United is $125 each way!) to bring a small pet in a carrier and store it under the seat in front of you then I think you wouldn’t see as many people obtaining emotional therapy letters to avoid the outrageous fees . If the fees were say $25-40 each way, it’s more reasonable and people wouldn’t feel ripped off. It’s ridiculous that a baby can fly free on their parent’s lap until they are 2yrs old (many times crying the entire time), but a small animal stored in a carrier under the seat is charged $250 r/t? It’s really unfair. There definitely should be a fee for babies as well then.

    As for allergies–and I am one that suffers from them. You are more likely to have an allergy attack sitting next to a passenger who has pets at home and has dander/pet hair on their clothes than you are from a pet stored in the container on the floor. I do agree that every small pet (including emotional support pets) should be contained under the seat in front you. There’s no need for them to be on your lap and definitely no free roaming.

  36. So my reply is yes, studies of various conduct experiment says “Pets (either dog or any else) gives an unqualified care that can be very helpful to citizens who suffered with depression. Latest Studies show that animals can help in reducelevel stress and improve happy mood.

  37. It has really gotten out of hand. My last flight a young college age gal took her German Shepard on the plane and was in row six. I know she likes her dog and is trying to get around the flight charges, and don’t blame her for trying – but this dog was totally untrained. It pooped in the middle of the airport, while we were waiting. She and the dog were in row 6 so every other dog/cat that was brought in, the dog barked at it and had to be restrainted. It barked at some people (it probably was trying to play with people) and then it wasn’t friendly to everyone, so they had to try to find a person compatible to sit next to gal/dog. It was jumping in and out of the isle as folks tried to board. It was a mess. Then when we left the dog pooped again at the plane exit – making life wonderful for all disembarking.

    Two months ago, a lady brought 2 small dogs on a plane, as comfort animals on my Southwest flight, and the dog pooped on the plane. We all had to disembark and wait 2 hours for the airline to provide us with a clean plane. This wasted tons of our collective time, and probably cost the airlines 10 grand. These dogs were small enough to put in a case under the seat – if they pooped in the case, we wouldn’t have a problem.

    I am sure one in 100 people carrying a comfort animal has legit mental reasons for doing so, but the other 99% are just gaming the system, and inconveniencing everyone else.

    Apparently since this article was written, nothing has been done about the problem. I guess politicians are too afraid of looking mean. so 10’s of thousands have to be inconvenienced for the sake of one or two that really need the help.

  38. The handful of airlines I spoke with do require a doctor’s letter with license and a DSM IV diagnoses. I have no problem with a letter and the notion that it stigmatizes is silly. 1. You have the ESA with you so clearly something is up. 2. Only one person sees the letter at the counter checking in. 3. Aren’t we suppose to be de-stigmatizing “mental illness”, so we shouldn’t be hiding it. I have real PTSD. There’s no shame in that. Tons of people have anxiety and depression. So what? That doesn’t say anything about their character. It says something about their brain chemistry.

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