Airlines Can Ban ESAs in 2021

Under a revised rule recently finalized by the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines will no longer be required to allow emotional support animals (ESAs) inside passenger cabins. The rule formally takes effect 30 days after being published in the Federal Register, which means that it’ll likely take effect in January of 2021.

Airlines and their flight attendants have long complained that the ESA rules were being abused. One survey of flight attendants found that almost two-thirds of attendants had been involved in a cabin disruption caused by an ESA—with more than half of those incidents involving aggressive or threatening behavior by the animal. 

Airlines have also reported an increase in the number of ESAs being brought onto flights. Airline crews have expressed concerns about people falsely claiming their pet is an emotional support animal, so they can bring them into the cabin and avoid pet fees. In turn, some disability advocates have voiced concerns that unusual ESAs—like pigs, iguanas, even a peacock—erode the public’s trust in service animals. 

What Does the Revised ESA Law Change?

The new rule isn’t totally indifferent to the needs of people with service animals. Under the revised rule, psychiatric service dogs still must be allowed in the cabin, so passengers with mental health needs that are addressed by trained companion dogs will still have their needs met during their travels.

For passengers with a disability traveling with other service animals, they can fill out a DOT form prior to their flight that attests to the animals’ behavior and health. However, airlines have the discretion to place restrictions on service animals in the cabin. And they can ban ESAs entirely, if they choose.

The federal rule change removes ESAs from the definition of service animals. This limits that definition to only animals that are trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities. ESAs—which do not require any training or certification—can now be regarded
as pets.

What Does This Change Mean for Therapists?

Traditionally, professional associations have advised their members to steer clear of writing ESA letters for their clients. The ACA’s Division on Human-Animal Interaction in Counseling released a position statement on ESAs in 2019. That statement discourages counselors from writing ESA letters unless they have “specialized training and experience in working with [the] human-animal bond in counseling.” 

Earlier this year, the Human-Animal Interaction Section of the American Psychological Association released a position statement similarly discouraging psychologists from writing ESA letters unless they have specific training and expertise in the subject.

What to Consider for Future ESA Letters

Therapists, meanwhile, have found themselves in a difficult position when clients have requested ESA letters. In the absence of clear guidelines, some therapists may have written ESA letters for clients upon request—simply to avoid creating conflict in the relationship. 

In Colorado and California, therapists have been disciplined by their licensing boards for writing ESA letters for clients through online sites without conducting thorough assessments of the clients requesting those letters. 

While this change is likely to significantly reduce the number of requests therapists receive for ESA letters, it won’t entirely eliminate those requests. ESAs are still recognized under the federal Fair Housing Act, which requires landlords to allow residents to keep ESAs with them in housing situations—so long as the animal does not present an “undue burden” for the landlord. This limits the landlords who would otherwise ban pets or charge additional rent
for them. 

The recent guidance from professional associations, combined with the new DOT rule, should make it easier for therapists to make decisions about writing ESA letters. The topic is likely to remain controversial, and boards have shown that they believe specific expertise and detailed, in-person assessment is likely necessary when writing such letters. If you’re faced with a request for an ESA letter, it remains critical to do your due diligence before making a decision. 

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