Southwest Airlines Bans Emotional Support Animals

Filed Under: Southwest

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.

Bottom line

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?

  1. As long there’s loopholes, people will continue on abusing them and we all know what will happen, more bans in the near future.

  2. So I have to leave my “service cat” home on business trips? Darn! My cat was in awe of the Peacocks on board but did not not care much for the snakes or pigs.

  3. You mean we got to pay kennel fees again? It was a good ride though. Kids got to take fluffy and we-we to Grandma’s house every summer while us adults went to play. It was a win-win situation for the whole family.

  4. This whole issue of emotional/psychiatric supports animals is a USA only thing. Of course Americans will continue to loophole this. I saw a couple bring two standard poodles on a Southwest flight which of course took up the entire floor three across in the bulkhead. The same floor where you cannot have a handbag or backpack due to “safety”.

  5. Lucky, how come you keep calling out this “loophole” in every article you post? Wouldn’t it be better to just stay silent on the matter rather than spoon feed the scammers a loophole on a silver platter?

  6. We worked on this issue for 2 years with DOT, the airline industry and advocates for the disability community. Let me know if you want to learn more.

    Sheri Soltes
    Assistance Dogs International, North America
    Vice President
    Chair, ADI NA Legislative and Advocacy Committee
    [email protected]

  7. @Ryan

    It does not take Lucky spoon feeding anything to the scammers. For years, these people have been taking advantage of a very narrow system meant to accomodate the blind, etc. They don’t need Lucky, or anyone else, for them to continue to seek—and find—ways to circumvent things. Ever heard “just Google it”?

  8. When the intent is to bring either a very large dog onto the airplane against pet rules, or to avoid paying the pet fee, the practice is clearly UNETHICAL.

    I do not believe that OMAT should be instructing people in how to unethically bypass the DOT SAFETY rules.

    If there is ever a crash with survivors these pets will get in the way of people trying to escape. That’s why they were banned in the first place. All those who actively support bypassing the intent of the DOT ruling will be directly responsible for any increase in injury or death of passengers caused by the difficulty in exiting a distressed airliner.

    All airliners must pass a DOT test for exiting the airplane within a short period of time. With these new rules the test should be conducted with 10% ‘psychiatric animals’ in the cabin. With all airliners failing the test with animals onboard then perhaps sense will return to this discussion.

  9. As someone who suffers from a dog and cat allergy, flying has become increasingly stressful in recent years. I love pets, but they make me sick. And unfortunately, their dander stays behind even once they are gone.

    This is a step in the right direction, but even better would be to have some kind of registry for those with pet allergies so that we don’t get seated next to pets. For all airlines I’ve flown with, when there is a pet on the plane, it’s the allergy sufferer who needs to be re-seated – not the pet.

  10. This won’t change much at all. People will continue using the loopholes to annoy others with their terrible animals.

  11. People who need emotional support animals in order to fly are awful people. That’s right, I said it! These people should fly Spirit airlines and have fist fights with other passengers! LOL! Actually, I’m kidding – but the whole emotional support animal things was such [email protected]#$& to begin with and the animals smell on the planes too.

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