Last week Alaska Airlines was the first airline to ban emotional support animals under a new Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling. This week United, American, and Delta have joined in banning the companion cabin animals.
Southwest Airlines says it applauded the new DOT rule that “permits common-sense limits on the transport of animals in the aircraft cabin.” But the airline, now the world’s largest , says that as of now, “Our Emotional Support Animals policy has not changed. Southwest will announce this year any changes and timelines for those changes to our policies.”
The airlines that are barring Emotional Support Animals (ESA) say they are simply reacting to the DOT rules change which limits support animals in the cabin to trained service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind. United says, “This change will further ensure a safe and accessible travel experience for our customers.”
In reality, the airlines themselves pushed for the change over the last year. The airlines, led by their lobbying organization, Airlines For America, did a concerted job of turning public opinion against emotional service animals and their owners, who supposedly brought aboard “comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, spiders, and more.”
Popeye’s even made ESAs a national joke, offering “emotional support chicken” to holiday flyers in 2018. More seriously, a passenger and flight attendant were allegedly bitten by support dogs in separate incidents.
For most airlines, the new no-fly policy for ESAs started on January 11, although previously booked animals will be allowed to fly through February. United says, “Our new policy goes into effect on Jan. 11 and – beginning Feb. 1 – United passengers will be asked to complete a DOT-authorized form prior to travel that confirms their service animal’s training, health and certification.”
Each airline has its own interpretation of the new policies. Delta, for example, says it will lift its “ban on pit bull type dogs provided they meet documentation requirements for trained service animals.”
Emotional support animals are allowed in even no-pets housing under the Fair Housing Act and more than 50 million Americans have significant psychological issues, some of which may be addressed by ESAs. Yet skeptics still ask “Yes, humans need emotional support, but do even half the animals dragged by humans onto planes actually deliver that?”
Emotional support animal owners aren’t happy about the ban or mocking headlines like “Soon, you will no longer be able to bring your emotional-support peacock onto an airplane.” A Change.org petition so far has nearly a thousand signatures.
As signer Kay G. wrote, “The fact that many people joke about the seriousness of how this will affect DISABLED travelers is barbaric. Our ESA IS PART OF OUR MEDICAL TREATMENT PLAN.” (ESA owners typically need to get a certifying letter from a medical professional.)
The airline industry has had precious few victories over the last year. COVID-19 has devastated travel, resulting in the grounding thousands of planes, the collapse of 23 airlines, and the layoffs of thousands of pilots, flight attendants and many other airline workers. Nonetheless, the airlines and the media, which largely took the airlines’ side, paints the elimination of Emotional Support Animals as a big win.
For one thing, the airlines can ‘take back control of the cabin’ from occasionally disruptive animals. (If only it were so simple with humans.) For another, the airlines apparently believe that ESA certification was a scam to avoid paying travel fees for pets.
After nearly a year of debate, the DOT announced the rule revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act service animal rule “to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system.”
One key new provision is “defining a service animal as a dog and no longer requiring airlines to accommodate miniature horses, cats, rabbits, birds and all other service animals that airlines are currently required to transport.” While this rule seems aimed at untrained animals of all kinds, miniature horses have been trained as service animals for years. Although trained miniature horses, considered service animals under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), are popular because they have a longer service life than dogs, they are now banned from airlines.
The second major change to the DOT rule is to permit the treatment of “emotional support animals as a pet and not requiring airlines to recognize emotional support animals as service animals.” American Airlines says, “Animals that previously traveled as emotional support animals and no longer qualify as service animals may travel as carry-on pets or as cargo pets, as long as they meet the requirements.”
Pet travel fees can be quite lucrative for the airlines. American, United and Delta each charge $125 each way for “cabin pets.” Alaska charges pet carriage fees of $100 in the cabin and $100 in the cargo compartment. Southwest’s “Pet Fare” is $95 each way. United was a leader in the transport of larger animals, but their “PetSafe” (cargo hold) service been suspended due to the COVID-19 cargo crunch.
Advocates for ESA owners point out that flying one’s dog as a pet “can be more expensive than the flights.” And getting a service dog is an even greater financial challenge; Barnkrate.com says a trained service dog can cost from $20,000 to $60,000.
“We believe [the airline ESA ban] to be discriminatory to individuals who are not able to afford a service animal, or do not have access to this form of treatment,” says Prairie Conlon, LPC, NPC & Clinical Director of CertaPet.com.
With Southwest Airlines apparently still a holdout, and with advocates threatening lawsuits, will the ban on emotional support animals stick? One thing is for sure; COVID-19 lockdowns have bonded owners even more tightly with their animals. When people start to travel, they’re not going to want to travel without their canine companions.