United Airlines Bans Emotional Support Animals

Filed Under: United

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 Southwest Airlines, have all already announced plans to ban ESAs. United Airlines is the latest carrier to update its policy. The airline didn’t even put out a press release, but rather only quietly updated its webpage for service animals.

United bans emotional support animals

United Airlines will continue to accept emotional support animals for reservations booked before January 11, 2021, and for travel on or before February 28, 2021. For travel as of March 1, 2021, United won’t transport any emotional support animals.

To request travel with an emotional support animal prior to March 1, 2021, you should email required support documents to [email protected]

United Airlines will continue to accept service animals:

  • A service animal is a dog of any breed or type that is over the age of four months, and 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
  • Each person may travel with at most two service dogs
  • A service animal has to sit on the floor space in front of the customer’s assigned seat and cannot protrude into the aisles or the foot space of adjacent travelers
  • As of February 1, 2021, United will require completion of DOT service animal forms, including a service animal training and behavior attestation form, and a relief attestation form for flights of over eight hours

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 dogs over 20 pounds 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

United Airlines is banning emotional support animals for flights booked as of January 11, 2021, and for travel as of March 1, 2021. This policy update follows a recent ruling by the DOT giving airlines the right to do this, and United is the fourth major airline to add this restriction, after Alaska, American, and Delta.

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 United Airlines’ emotional support animal policy change?

  1. For those with psychiatric conditions I hope professional training of an animal to help is available, I would hate to see a troubled mind training an animal without experience in training animals become a cure.

    It’s be the same as saying a person requiring psychological medicine can just make their own anti psychotic medicine. Let science be science and don’t play games.

  2. People will just expect the loophole until it’s closed for good. It’ll just take a few more highly publicized dog bites to get to that point.
    A certificate from a qualified and accredited trainer plus a letter from the person’s psychiatrist should have been mandatory from day one

  3. As someone who experienced a longhaul United flight (IAH-SYD) sitting with a fully-grown silver-backed gorilla on my lap whilst his guardian downed several martinis and forgot to feed her “emotional support animal”, this is welcome news.

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