The Department of Transportation issued a final ruling and new guidance eliminating a restriction on airlines charging for emotional support animals, but did it really change anything?
Department of Transportation Issues Final Ruling
This week the Department of Transportation (DoT) issued a final ruling regarding emotional support animals after two years of public comment. The ruling has clarified that airlines no longer have to allow passengers traveling with emotional support animals to travel without paying pet fees for the cabin or transporting in the cargo hold. The ruling doesn’t ban animals in the cabin and airlines can still choose to offer transport for free if they choose as a corporate policy.
Service dogs, those that work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, are not a part of this ruling. Airlines are required to offer the admittance of these individually trained service animals as are any business in the United States in compliance with the Disability act.
The ruling clarified that the traveling public would no longer be able to travel with dogs, cats, peacocks, horses, or turtles as ESAs but solely service support dogs in the cabin as a cost-free option.
…But With a Loophole
As Matthew expertly pointed out this week, the DoT left a large and obvious loophole in the ruling. The DoT allows those with a psychiatric need and associated documentation will in essence qualify as a service dog. Despite the need to have the animal trained and certified as service dogs who assist people with disabilities, training can be done at home by the person in need of the animal.
Matthew quoted the DoT ruling here:
“It gets worse:
It is our understanding that the vast majority of emotional support animals are dogs, and dogs can be task-trained to perform many different tasks and functions. We also note that the rule does not require service animal users to incur the cost of training by third party schools or organizations; service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.
Psychiatric service animal users will no longer be required to provide a letter from a licensed mental health professional detailing the passenger’s need for the animal, nor will they be required to check in one hour before the check-in time for other passengers.”
Is there a Material Change, or More Clearly Defined Option?
At the most basic level, emotional support animals are still allowed so long as they are a dog, and a psychiatrist writes a recommendation for it.
The companies that built their business based on $30 online ESA recommendations will add no more than a single dog-loving, sympathetic (or greedy) psychiatrist to the payroll to become compliant. No doubt, they will add an additional fee for the added layer of cost and authenticity.
I can understand the need to get the situation under control. Airline crew members and flight attendants were dealing with a litany of issues around the carriage of the animals when the simplest of solutions could have solved the problem. That solution is here. There is still a way to get a dog onto a plane sitting under the seat in front of you without paying for it (why not just pay for the animal) but now that will be limited to dogs that must exhibit some form of training.
With a more concrete rule on the books, I also hope that the agency (who assured the public they would enforce it) will force psychiatrists issuing the notices to document their recommendations on a federal register with the risk of losing their license should it be determined that they are simply handing out the recommendations for a fee.
Sadly, I’d argue that this ruling changes form but not function for most of those traveling with ESAs. Worse still, for those who genuinely need service dogs to navigate public areas, calm PTSD, assist with seizures, or any of the other tasks that trained service dogs can perform, they will continually be classed with those simply trying to avoid paying a pet transportation fee. Only now, it doing so has the resemblance of finding a doctor who will write a disorder down on paper so that a handicap parking slip can be easily and cheaply obtained while someone who actually needs it finds themselves parking around the block.
While I was encouraged to see that the ESA issue had finally seen a final ruling, I was dismayed by the DoT essentially opening the door that they had just closed. Air travel can be stressful, and some have genuine needs that service animals fulfill. But the only thing that this ruling truly changed is that ESA documentation will look different, cost more, and mirror that of service dogs that are truly needed. At least there won’t be any more horses in first class, right?
What do you think? Did the ruling have a material effect on ESAs and service dogs? Do you think ESA certification companies will change protocol but mostly carry-on, business as usual? Should the DoT have strengthened the ESA rules instead?