Emotional Support Animals May No Longer Fly for Free

Travelers might have to rethink their trips if they want to take along their emotional support animal.
Meghan Coyle
By Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Meg Lee

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Peacocks, mini horses and pigs, oh my! Some pet owners have tried to pass dogs, cats and all sorts of other animals off as “emotional support animals” to skirt airline fees and policies.

But because of policy updates from the U.S. Department of Transportation, or DOT, emotional support animals previously allowed on airplanes are no longer guaranteed to fly for free.

What’s changed

The DOT is cracking down on flyers traveling with pets. Under the DOT’s new definition, emotional support animals are no longer considered service animals, and airlines aren't required to treat them as such.

As a result, travelers who want to take their animal on board a flight could soon have to pay pet fees, which can range from $95-$125 or more one-way. Animals that can't fit under the seat or on their owner’s lap might even have to fly in the cargo hold, where they could endure extreme temperatures, long periods of isolation and mishandling by airline staff.

For some pet owners, the new rules on emotional support animals mean changing the way they travel.

Tracey Halama, a sales executive based in Chicago, estimates her 35-pound miniature goldendoodle, Ollie, has flown on more than 16 trips with her and her two daughters. Before the pandemic, Halama was traveling frequently for work, and she took her entire family whenever she could. It was the family therapist’s idea to get Ollie to provide emotional support to Halama’s oldest daughter, who struggles with high anxiety.

“It's disappointing,” Halama says. “I kind of feel like other people ruined it for those pet owners that do have to abide by the rules.”

What travelers with pets could do instead

Take more road trips

By all accounts, Ollie is a well-behaved dog who loves people, and Halama says flight attendants and other passengers adore him, but his flying days might be over. Instead of taking flights to the family’s lake house in northern Michigan, the family will start doing the six-hour drive with Ollie instead.

“For us, we'll be driving a lot more to some of our vacation destinations when we start taking vacations again,” Halama says. “And I have to believe that there are other flyers with emotional support animals that are not going to leave their animals behind. They're going to figure out ways to keep moving.”

Fly private

One alternative to keep flying with pets is to explore private options. Halama says she might look into flight sharing options when the family goes on a trip to a far destination.

JSX, a company that flies regional routes between private airports, is one way pet owners may be able to get their medium or large dog in the cabin — though it’ll require purchasing an extra seat.

Another future pet-only private option is Pet Airways, which transports animals in the temperature-controlled main cabin, and owners pick up their pets on arrival. The company isn’t currently flying because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Change airline loyalties

The fine print of the DOT’s new policy on emotional support animals doesn’t mean they're automatically banned from the cabin; it’s up to the discretion of each airline.

Alaska, United, Delta and American have already announced their decision to no longer allow emotional support animals to fly for free on travel booked after Jan. 11, 2021. Southwest will follow suit, starting on March 1.

In a statement, American expressed its support of the DOT rule:

“This new rule reflects a respect for individuals with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share, while providing clear and practical guidelines that will eliminate the abuse of the system that has been a source of concern for our team members and customers.”

It’s possible, though, that some airlines may opt to still consider dogs and cats emotional support animals and continue to let them fly in the cabin without fees.

If that’s the case, that could be a huge factor in which airline Halama chooses to fly. She’s a Million Miler with United Airlines, so that level of elite status isn't something she'd give up lightly. But it's worth it if she can keep Ollie together with the family.

“It's like you're asking someone to choose between their frequent flyer miles and their family,” Halama says. “He is that integral to our family.”

The bottom line

Airlines now have more control over whether they accommodate emotional support animals, following the DOT’s new definition of service animals. Exotic animals and farm animals are almost certainly off the table as in-cabin flight companions, and people with dogs and cats may have to start paying pet fees to bring their furry friends on board. The crackdown on emotional support animals may also mean travelers have to find alternative modes of transportation to keep traveling with their pets.

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