Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 19, 2021, and has been updated as of Nov. 2, 2021.
No more peacocks. No more pigs. In the past few months, all major U.S. airlines have banned emotional support animals (ESAs) on flights. While that may be welcome news for some passengers and airline personnel, it leaves some travelers searching for alternative means of travel.
“The sudden banning of emotional support animals to fly for free may result in some passengers feeling unfairly disadvantaged,” said Shelley Tasker, head of operations at Alternative Airlines, a flight search and booking site that works with travel advisors and consumers alike to identify pet-friendly flying options. “Ensuring the safety of passengers will be a primary concern to the major U.S. airlines which have made these amendments, but the change in guidelines may seem confusing and daunting to many travelers.”
The sudden banning of emotional support animals to fly for free may result in some passengers feeling unfairly disadvantaged.
The latest restrictions came after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a revision to its Air Carrier Access Act in December 2020, and went into effect in January 2021.
Airlines' New Definition of Service Animals
According to the new guidelines, the definition of a service animal is now limited to “a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability.” In other words, emotional support animals — as well as other types of trained animals besides dogs — are no longer considered service animals.
To fly with a service animal, passengers must provide information about the dog’s health, training and service role by submitting a completed Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form before the trip.
Airlines for America, an airline industry advocacy group, praised the recent ruling, saying that the revised definition of a service animal is closer to the one used by the Department of Justice’s Americans with Disabilities Act.
The organization also reported that the number of ESAs in the air had been growing rapidly in recent years, accompanied by what it calls a “sharp increase” in negative incidents caused by the animals. In 2017, the number of ESAs surged by nearly 60% compared to the year before, while in 2018, the number of animals flying grew by 14%, which is still a sizeable figure compared to the 4.7% growth in human air travelers that same year.
Which Airlines Allow Emotional Support Animals?
With one of the industry’s leading advocacy groups supporting the new ruling, it’s no surprise that every major U.S. airline adopted the new definition in the following weeks and implemented ESA bans. By February, it became next to impossible for travelers in the U.S. to fly on a scheduled flight with an ESA.
That leaves some travelers searching for new options.
“We have definitely seen an increase in inquiries from travelers and travel agents seeking advice since the banning of emotional support animals,” said Alternative Airlines’ Tasker. “Passengers are looking to see if there are air travel alternatives to the usual airlines they fly that will allow emotional support animals to fly for free.”
Passengers are looking to see if there are air travel alternatives to the usual airlines they fly that will allow emotional support animals to fly for free.
That’s not an easy task. According to ESA Doctors, an organization that serves people with emotional support animals, LATAM Airlines and Volaris. European carriers that allow ESAs include Air France and KLM, but only for passengers traveling to or from the U.S.
How to Travel With Pets Now
The recent ban won’t have much of an effect on overall bookings, at least according to some travel advisors.
“I am fortunate in that most of my clients do not travel with their pets via commercial plane,” said Alyson Nash, travel advisor and founder of Cloud 10 Travel in Millburn, New Jersey. “They’ll bring their furry friends on a road trip or local staycation. The ones who fly with their pets tend to fly private.”
Indeed, private planes and car trips are among the easiest options for traveling with ESAs. But there are a few alternatives. One is offered by Blacklane, a transportation company that recently debuted door-to-door intercity trips in an SUV or sedan, with flat rates to and from cities including Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Phoenix. The company pays travel agencies a 10% commission for booking through its Blacklane for Business program.
Amtrak, meanwhile, expanded its pet program in March to allow customers to travel with dogs and cats aboard weekday Acela trains for $26, a service that previously was only available on weekend departures.
Amtrak accepts service animals that are trained to assist passengers with specific tasks, and emotional support animals are allowed under the organization’s carry-on pet guidelines, for a flat fee of $26 — but accepted animals only include dogs and cats that weigh 20 pounds or less and travel in an approved pet carrier on trips of seven hours or less.