a dog sitting on a cliff looking at the mountains
Image by sagar pradhan from Pixabay

Emotional support and service animals in the USA are a big deal. Look no further than the fluffy felines, or numerous dogs of all sizes, even massive ones, that board each and every flight with their human counterparts, like it’s no big deal. Horses too.

A new ruling from the US Department of Transportation means the freewheeling days of these lax pet policies may be over, forever, or at least greatly limited.

Airlines Can Ban Emotional Support Animals

In a final ruling from the US Department of Transportation and the Trump Administration, mere days after it moved to further limit air passenger abilities to fight back against unfair or deceptive business practices, the US DOT is taking aim at service and emotional support animals on planes.

Namely, it’s separating the two. Emotional support animals no longer count as service animals, which is a huge blow to many travelers. They’re now just pets, which airlines can charge for, or ban from the cabin. Only service dogs are guaranteed to travel for free with a passenger under the new ruling.

a dog sitting on a cliff looking at the mountains
Image by sagar pradhan from Pixabay

When it comes to the more formally trained ‘service’ animals, airlines are no longer required to recognize the many animals which people claim as official service animals, and now are only legally required to recognize service dogs. This means anyone who suffers from a disability, with a highly trained animal of species other than dog is no longer guaranteed to have their service animal be accepted by an airline.

Airlines can also require documentation that your trusty pup is indeed a service dog, with proper training, and health certificates too, rather than just an emotional support animal. In a small silver lining, airlines are now prohibited from making people with disabilities check in with their service animal in person, rather than online.

Huge Emotional Service Animal Changes

For the more loosely defined, and often abused “emotional support animals”, not service animals, airlines can now charge for the privilege, or bar them from the cabin entirely, whereas they could not before. They can treat them as any other pet. Here’s an excerpt from the ruling…

This allows airlines, for the first time, to recognize emotional support animals (ESAs) as pets rather than service animals.

Because airlines charge passengers for transporting pets, and are prohibited from charging passengers traveling with service animals, passengers previously had an incentive to claim their pets were ESAs.

Airlines and other passengers have also reported increased incidence of misbehavior by ESAs on aircraft and in the airport. The misbehavior has included animals’ urinating, defecating, and in some instances, harming people and other animals at the airport or on the aircraft. The primary economic impact of this rule is that it will eliminate a market inefficiency.US Department Of Transportation

Emotional support animals previously had the same privileges as service dogs, which allowed owners with oversized pets to travel with the animal for free, bypassing typical limits which restrict on board pets to 20 pounds. It could save as much as $175 each way, and certificates were all too easy to acquire.


It’s now up to the airline whether your overweight Golden Retriever gets to fly, and for how much, even with your “doctor” approved emotional support animal certificate.

It means airlines can charge passengers standard pet fees for an emotional support animal journey, just as if the animal were traveling as cargo. Airlines can also limit how many pets it allows on any flight, unlike service animals, with a first come, first serve system. Additionally, airlines aren’t legally required to have those that “don’t fit” on board at all.

In our view, allowing emotional support animals with a stricter set of requirements would perpetuate tiered systems that give rise to confusion and the continued opportunity for abuse and increased safety risk.

As such, the final rule allows airlines to treat emotional support animals as pets. We note, however, that airlines may choose to continue to transport emotional support animals without charge at their discretion.

Furthermore, even if airlines decide after the effective date of this rule to charge pet fees for emotional support animals, this change would not impact the ability of individuals with psychiatric or mental health disabilities to continue to travel with their psychiatric service animals onboard aircraft without being charged a pet fee.US Department of Transportation

The free market will quite literally decide what flies, what doesn’t, and how much, if anything, will be charged for the privilege of bringing your pet along with you. Service animals aren’t even guaranteed, if they’re not dogs.

a green sign with white text

Airlines could, of course, continue to charge nothing for people with emotional support animals, and keep policies lax. But realistically, they could also start charging gouging fees for any new bookings, and if they all go in on things, as US airlines tend to do, it’ll be hard to fight back. As airlines dig deep for cash, it’s not hard to imagine which way things are likely to go.

Much like talk of “sleeper” sections, or “baby free” zones, airlines could also use this opportunity to better differentiate themselves from the pack, with small charges offset by pet friendly amenities or services. Talk about a fun job posting, “Chief Pet Officer”!

Previous emotional support rulings in the USA didn’t allow airlines to charge for oversized pets which had the emotional support paperwork. But now that they can, they could make any fees charged worthwhile, perhaps even creating doggy lounges…

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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