Oh, the peacocks, miniature horses, and piglets! Some pet owners have attempted to pass their dogs, cats, and other pets off as “emotional support animals” in order to avoid airline costs and restrictions.
However, due to regulation changes made by the United States Department of Transportation, or DOT, emotional support animals that were previously allowed to fly for free are no longer guaranteed.
Fly for Free: What’s changed
The Department of Transportation is cracking down on flyers who are traveling with pets. Emotional support animals are no longer considered service animals under the DOT’s new definition, and airlines are no longer compelled to treat them as such.
As a result, passengers who want to bring their pet on a plane may soon be required to pay pet fees, which can range from $95 to 125 or more one-way.
Animals that are too large to sit under a seat or on their owner’s lap may be forced to fly in the cargo hold, where they may face harsh temperatures, lengthy periods of isolation, and mistreatment by airline personnel.
The new limitations on emotional support animals may force some pet owners to alter their vacation plans.
Tracey Halama, a Chicago-based sales woman, believes that her 35-pound miniature goldendoodle, Ollie, has accompanied her and her two daughters on more than 16 travels.
Halama was traveling frequently for work before the epidemic, and she took her entire family with her whenever she could. The family therapist came up with the concept of having Ollie provide emotional support to Halama’s oldest daughter, who suffers from severe anxiety.
“It’s a letdown,” Halama admits. “I feel that other people have spoiled it for those pet owners who must follow the rules.”
What travelers with pets could do instead
Take more road trips
Ollie is a well-behaved dog that loves people, according to Halama, and he is adored by flight attendants and other passengers, but his flying days may be gone. Instead of flying to the family’s lake property in northern Michigan, the family will begin driving with Ollie for the six-hour journey.
“When we start taking vacations again, we’ll be driving a lot more to some of our vacation destinations,” Halama adds. “I also have to assume that there are other flyers with emotional support animals who will not abandon their pets. They’ll come up with ways to stay moving.”
Exploring private possibilities as a way to maintain traveling with pets is one option. When the family embarks on a trip to a faraway location, Halama says she might check into airline sharing alternatives.
Pet owners may be able to fly their medium or large dog in the cabin with JSX, a business that flies regional flights between private airports, however it will require purchasing an extra seat.
Pet Airways, which transports animals in the temperature-controlled main cabin and allows owners to pick up their pets on arrival, is another prospective pet-only private option. Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, the company is temporarily grounded.
Change airline loyalties
The small print of the Department of Transportation’s new regulation on emotional support animals doesn’t mean they’ll be automatically barred from the cabin; it’ll be up to each airline’s judgment.
Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines have already confirmed that emotional support animals will no longer be allowed to fly for free on flights booked after January 11, 2021. Beginning March 1, Southwest will follow suit.
American said in a statement that it supports the DOT rule:
“This new rule represents a respect for people with disabilities who travel with legitimate service animals, which we share, while also offering clear and realistic criteria that will eliminate the system abuse that has been a foul taste in our mouths,” she said.
It’s likely, however, that some airlines may continue to treat dogs and cats as emotional support animals and allow them to fly in the cabin for free.
If that’s the case, it’s possible that it’ll play a big role in which airline Halama chooses to fly. She’s a United Airlines Million Miler, so giving up that kind of elite status isn’t something she’d do lightly. But it’ll be worth it if she can keep Ollie and the rest of the family together.
“It’s almost as if you’re asking someone to pick between their frequent flier points and their family,” Halama explains. “He is so important to our family.”
Following the DOT’s new definition of service animals, airlines now have more flexibility in deciding whether or not to accommodate emotional support animals.
Exotic and farm animals are almost probably off the table as in-cabin companions, and dog and cat owners may have to start paying pet fees in order to bring their pets on board.
The ban on emotional support animals may force travelers to find alternate ways of transportation in order to have their dogs with them.