In early December 2020, the US Department of Transportation issued a final ruling regarding emotional support animals (ESAs), allowing airlines to no longer accommodate ESAs if they don’t want to.
Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, have all already announced plans to ban ESAs. Southwest Airlines is the latest carrier to update its policy, but the carrier’s ban on ESAs is several weeks later than those of other airlines.
Southwest bans emotional support animals
For flights as of March 1, 2021, Southwest Airlines will no longer transport any emotional support animals. Customers who hold a reservation with an emotional support animal for March 1 or later are being told to contact the airline for more information and for assistance.
This does mean that Southwest Airlines continues to allow emotional support animals for the next several weeks (including for new bookings), which is a more generous policy than what we’ve seen at some other airlines.
Like other airlines, Southwest Airlines will continue to accept service animals. A service animal is a dog that’s individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.
Customers traveling with a trained service dog must present a complete and accurate DOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form at the gate or ticket counter on their day of travel to affirm a service animal’s health, behavior, and training. The form will be available on both Southwest’s website and at airport locations.
Why there will be a lot of new “service dogs”
While emotional support animals will be banned, don’t expect this to be the end of larger dogs in the cabin of planes. Some people have historically used the emotional support animal loophole for one of two reasons — to save on the cost of bringing a dog into the cabin (compared to paying the pet fee), or to get a dog over 20 pounds into the cabin (which is otherwise the weight limit).
As I noted in a separate post, odds are good that many people may choose to recategorize their emotional support animals as psychiatric service animals. Here’s how the DOT defines psychiatric service animals:
Psychiatric service animals are treated the same as other service animals that are individually trained to do work or perform a task for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.
Owners of dogs are allowed to train their own psychiatric service animals, so there’s no need to have these dogs trained by an outside party:
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.
And you can self-certify your need for a psychiatric service animal:
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.
I’m not making a judgment call here one way or another, but rather I’m simply pointing out that those celebrating the end of dogs in airplane cabins will likely be disappointed.
Yes, there will now only be dogs in cabins (rather than peacocks, pigs, etc.), but I would expect that there will still be a significant number of dogs traveling in the cabins of planes under these rules.
Southwest Airlines is banning emotional support animals for flights as of March 1, 2021. Among the major US airlines, Southwest will be among the last to add this restriction, and will continue to allow ESAs for new bookings until then.
This policy update follows a recent ruling by the DOT giving airlines the right to do this, and it seems like major airlines are taking advantage of this.
While I know many will celebrate this change, don’t get too excited — psychiatric service animals continue to be allowed, and that includes dogs. While this will lead to the end of animals other than dogs in airplane cabins, I wouldn’t expect a huge decrease in the number of travelers with dogs.
What do you make of Southwest Airlines’ emotional support animal policy change?