WASHINGTON — We’ve heard about pigs flying—plus miniature horses, turkeys, anteaters, and other “support animals” on airplanes. You might think any creature can fly if it works as a support animal–but is that true?
Does any animal serving as a “support animal” qualify to board an airplane?
- Department of Transportation
- The Department of Justice and the Americans with Disabilities Act
- The American Kennel Club’s Sheila Goffe, head of Government Relations
- The policies of several major airlines
No—Airlines are only required to have accommodations for service dogs. Other animals can be considered pets, subject to the same regulations and fees.
WHAT WE FOUND:
If you ever raised your eyebrows when reading a story of someone bringing a wild animal on an airplane and calling it a “support animal,” you’re not alone—in fact, it lead to a change in the Department of Transportation policy.
“When people started really misrepresenting pets as emotional support animals, or service dogs, there was a lot of poor behavior that was involved,” said Sheila Goffe, head of Government Relations with the American Kennel Club. “And it's really undermining those individuals who need disabilities [support] because now they go to an airport, everyone's looking at that looking at them, like, ‘is this a real service dog? Or is this a fake service dog?’ It's sad.”
The ADA defines service animals as dogs “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities,” physical or psychiatric– and legally allowed to be with their human in public places.
“They have to have a specific diagnosed disability, and then that dog is mitigating the disability in some way,” said Goffe. The American Kennel Club says emotional support animals are prescribed by mental health professionals, but they are pets– and not service dogs.
At the beginning of 2021, the DOT included the ADA definition of a service animal in its “final rule” on service animals on airplanes, which also “no longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal.”
“It's a really tricky thing because we recognize that emotional support is really valuable, but it's something that all dogs can provide, and it's generalized, versus a very specific task,” said Goffe. “There's a huge disparity between the training that is required for a dog to carry out tasks to help an individual with a disability, versus one that by their very nature, they just do provide comfort and support.”
So now, airlines don’t need to accommodate emotional support animals in the same way they do service animals—and most major carriers say they won’t. (However, airlines and flight crews can decide to make exceptions and decisions on a case-by-case basis.)
We checked in with American, United, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, Jet Blue, and Spirit Airlines: emotional support animals travel as pets, with the same requirements and same fees. Service dogs fly free. They are not required to be identified with a vest or special collar. Typically, airlines require certain paperwork, though, before they fly.
“If you have a service dog, the standard accommodation is that dog can go anywhere you go,” said Goffe.