In a major reversal from recent policy, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has reclassified “emotional support animals” as pets for commercial flights, effective January 4, 2021.
From that date forward, only service dogs will be permitted in airline cabins on commercial flights.
Specifically, to be classified as a service animal, a dog must be “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” All other animals, emotionally supportive or not, will be checked into the cargo hold for a fee.
This controversial decision was made in the wake of some travelers “gaming” the system, and in its heyday led to all manner of animals catching free flights on their owner’s laps including monkeys, snakes, hamsters, and perhaps most memorably – a kangaroo (said kangaroo hopped on an American Airlines flight in Australia, naturally).
The DOT’s decision was not made lightly, but in response to disruptions caused by these unusual critters that they say eroded public trust in legitimate service animals. And to be sure, there were folks abusing the liberal policy.
The data suggests there are about 200,000 legitimate service dogs in this country – animals with highly specialized training for people with a wide range of disabilities, including psychiatric issues. To illustrate the scope of the fraud at play, Delta said it allowed more than 250,000 “emotional support animals” in 2017 alone. The industry trade group Airlines for America reports that over 750,000 passengers traveled with emotional support animals in 2017.
The new rules are already sparking pushback from some mental health professionals, who say that the policies discriminate against an already stigmatized group – the mentally ill. Further, some people say that the stress of flying during a pandemic makes emotional support animals all the more crucial for some travelers’ health.
The policy revisions also allow airlines to require service dogs to be tethered or leashed at all times, and can remove any animal exhibiting aggressive behavior to other passengers. The airlines are given permitted discretion to allow “emotional support animals” to continue to fly for free.
You’ll be required to do a little paperwork, but the DOT was painstaking in its efforts to avoid burdening the disabled in creating a barrier to flying. If a service dog handler books a flight more than 48 hours in advance, they will need to submit their paperwork prior to the date of travel. However, booking last minute will not create a hardship for travelers, who will be permitted to submit their paperwork at check in.
How do you feel about the new crackdown? Is this a solid remedy to rampant fraud or obvious discrimination against those with emotional or mental health disorders?