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Pre-pandemic, one of the hottest debates regarding flying the friendly skies concerned the noticeable influx of furry — and feathery and scaly — friends showing up in the main cabin.
This had to do with the increase in emotional support animals (ESAs). These are generally animals prescribed by a doctor or mental health professional to live with someone with depression, anxiety, or other mental health condition for therapeutic benefits. ESAs require no formal training or certification and can come in many forms.
Airlines were often left between a rock and a hard place when determining which ESAs could board and which could not. A new regulation from the Department of Transportation (DOT), however, will change that.
In its update of the Air Carrier Access Act regulation, which previously allowed emotional support animals, DOT states that an ESA is no longer defined as a service animal. A service animal is "a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability."
That small change will now allow airlines to deny boarding to all emotional support animals if they wish. Both disability advocates and airline workers favor the change, arguing that untrained ESAs can get unruly and jeopardize passenger and crew safety.
"The days of Noah's Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end," said Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson.
If airlines choose to ban emotional support animals, any non-service animals will need to comply with existing pet policies. For example, Delta Airlines' policy only allows small cats, dogs, and birds that fit in a carrier under the seat. Other animals will have to ride in cargo for a fee.
The new regulations do accommodate veterans and other people who have psychiatric service animals, which, unlike ESAs, are trained to perform specific tasks.
The regulations also allow airlines to require passengers to use DOT forms that prove a service dog's training and health and require service animals to fit in the passenger's foot area.
In short, if you typically travel with an emotional support animal, now is the time to start lobbying your favorite airlines to allow them. But a statement from an American Airlines spokesperson does not offer much hope: "We look forward to the improved experience we'll be able to deliver to our customers, especially those with legitimate service animals, as a result."