The US Government has ruled that only trained and registered dogs can be used as service animals on planes. Furthermore, non-human companions used for emotional support have been banned outright.
Alaska Airlines was the first airline to ban emotional support animals under the Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling. Then, at the start of 2021, United, American, and Delta joined them in banning companion cabin animals.
The airlines say they are simply reacting to the DOT ruling, which limits support animals in the cabin to trained service animals, such as guide dogs for the blind.
United said, “This change will further ensure a safe and accessible travel experience for our customers.”
The use of emotional support animals has long been a cause for friction between airlines and customers. Some fliers got away with bringing their pets into the main hold of the plane for free by saying they are an emotional support animal.
All the flier needed to pass the checks was a doctor’s note. But over the years, cats, hamsters, turkeys and even pigs have been taken on board planes to stay with their owners, rather than being looked after at home or put in the hold.
The airlines have been campaigning for changes to be made for well over a year. Led by their lobbying organisation, Airlines For America, they had been working towards turning public opinion against emotional support animals. There have been cases of people evidently fraudulently using their pets as emotional support animals, as well as a rise in misbehaviour from the pets.
These animals could technically be turned away by airlines, and indeed there are some famous cases of animals being stopped from boarding flights because of safety or sanitary concerns. However, there was no law to say the airline was in the right, which could risk legal action.
The transportation department has said that pets other than dogs being used as emotional support animals in this way have “eroded the public trust in legitimate service animals”.
What does the ruling mean?
Only dogs can be used as service animals, and they must be trained to help a person with a physical or psychiatric disability. Examples include guide dogs, or dogs used to detect health issues.
Any other emotional support animals will need to be checked into the cargo hold, where a pet fee will be applicable.
Veterans charities had pushed for the inclusion of psychiatric support dogs as well as physical, as not all disabilities are visible. After pressure, the ruling was amended.
Owners will have to vouch for the dog’s health, behaviour and training level. They will also have to be officially registered as support dogs. Airlines will also be able to require that dogs are kept on a lead at all times, and monitored throughout the airport before boarding.
American Airlines had previously banned creatures such as frogs, hedgehogs, goats, spiders, ‘non-household birds’, or any smelly or unclean animal from flying with them. Tusked, horned or hooved animals were also banned from flying.
However, they did allow miniature horses, but this ruling has now prohibited such animals, too.
Some good news is that airlines cannot ban dogs by breed. In 2018, Delta Air Lines banned ‘pit bull-type dogs’ from their flights, and although they are still refusing to step down over the decision, it means other companies cannot follow suit.
Emotional support animals over the years
Flirty the mini service horse is perhaps one of the most famous non-canine travellers. They are a psychological and mobility support horse, and handler Abrea said on their Instagram stories that “the service horse community will not sit still for this, and we plan to gather our resources and fight back against this” in response to the restrictions.
In 2018, an emotional support peacock was turned away from a United Airlines flight because of health concerns. Dexter even had a seat bought for him by owner Ventiko, but United said they broke rules on weight and size.
That year also saw a woman board a Frontier Airlines flight in Orlando, carrying her emotional support squirrel in a cat carrier. Unfortunately, rodents were banned at this point. But that didn’t stop the police from having to escort her off the flight after she grounded it for two hours.
2016 saw an emotional support turkey board a Delta flight. This is the event thought to have kicked off the initially dubious reaction to what can and can’t be classed as a support animal.
Between 2016 and 2018, when rulings started to come into force, it is thought that requests for emotional support animals to be brought onto planes had increased by up to 75% for some airlines.
Will the UK ban emotional support animals on planes?
Actually, the UK does not recognise emotional support animals – at all.
Only guide dogs and dogs that help people with disabilities are allowed on British flights. So, this ruling actually brings the US in line with UK regulations.
This would mean that Digby, the UK’s first guide horse, would not be allowed to fly. Likewise, in Britain, there is no formal acceptance of the need for psychological assistance dogs and support animals. Charity Dogs For Depression state:
“The UK support dog registration situation is that as yet there isn’t a way to register a psychiatric assistance/service dog or emotional support dog with the UK government and, at present, there are no clearly defined legal public access rights for psychiatric disability assistance or ES dogs.”
So, while the US ruling feels like a step back and has upset a lot of people, in the UK it has shone a light on emotional support animals in general.
While there are obvious concerns regarding the safety of animals on aeroplanes (and it needs to be a rigorous process so the rules aren’t exploited), our attitude towards emotional support animals in society is behind the rest of the world.