New DOT Rules for Emotional Support Animals –

January 29, 2021


New DOT Rules for Emotional Support Animals

Major airlines are banning emotional support animals (ESAs) under a new United States Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling.

In December 2020, the DOT announced it was providing new regulations for animals that travel by air and amending its definition of ESAs. The rules officially went into effect upon the start of 2021. If you had an Emotional Support Animal prior to 2021, this is major news.

In this DJANGO Dog Blog article, we cover everything you need to know about the DOT’s new rules and how it affects ESA and pet airline travel including:

  • How emotional support animals are now defined in the United States
  • How the new DOT regulations affect pet owners that want to fly with an ESA in 2021 and beyond
  • Which U.S. airlines have since banned emotional support animals
  • How to successfully fly with your dog or cat in-cabin going forward

New DOT Rules for Emotional Support Animals

In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation revised rules around flying with emotional support animals and stated it no longer considers ESAs to be service animals. The new regulations were updated in the DOT’s Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) which regulates the transportation of service animals by air.

Service animals are governed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and are allowed by law to be able to accompany their owners in commercial airplane cabins for no fee. Because ESAs are no longer considered service animals by the DOT, airlines no longer have to accept them on board their aircraft. Rather, many airlines are now banning ESAs entirely from their cabins and classifying these non-service animals as regular pets.

Were emotional support animals previously considered service animals?

Yes and no. Before 2021, emotional support animals fell under the broad definition of service animals under the DOT’s Air Carrier Access Act. Although ESAs were not trained to perform a specific task, i.e. guiding a blind person or bringing medication to a diabetic, they provided emotional support and therefore fell under the DOT’s definition of a ‘service animal’.

This stance on ESAs meant that airlines had to allow the animals to accompany their owners in commercial cabins for no fee. The DOT did not specifically define ESAs as a certain type of animal (i.e. dog, cat, pig, peacock), so all animals could technically be an ESA.

Unlike the DOT, the Americans with Disabilities Act has consistently defined service animals as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Because airlines must abide by DOT regulations, airlines always must adopt and set policy around the DOT’s definition of ESAs.

What is the DOT’s new definition of a service animal? 

The DOT now defines a service animal “as a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability”, including physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilities.

Because the DOT specifically states that service animals are dogs, it “no longer requires airlines to accommodate miniature horses, cats, rabbits, birds, and all other service animals” that airlines were previously required to transport.

When accompanying their owners on airplanes, service dogs are allowed to fly in the cabin with their owner free of charge, regardless of breed, as long as they can fit in their handler’s foot space.

What does this mean for owners of emotional support animals?

Unless the ESA can perform psychiatric work or tasks (e.g. wake up a person having a nightmare or get water/medication), airlines do not have to recognize the ESA as a service animal. This means the ESA is not guaranteed a spot in the cabin with their owner, even with a letter from a mental health professional.

ESAs are now considered pets, not medical tools. As a result, owners will have to pay a pet fee and follow the airline’s pet policy, which includes size, breed, and weight restrictions.

To be clear, the DOT makes clear that psychiatric service animals (those trained to perform psychiatric work or tasks), must be treated by airlines the same as other service animals.

Why did the DOT revise its rules on emotional support animals?

The DOT stated it was revising the Air Carrier Access Act to “to ensure a safe and accessible air transportation system.”  If you’ve read any headlines about ESAs over the past few years, it is pretty clear why the DOT took action.

The DOT revised the Air Carrier Access Act after years of complaints that travelers were exploiting a loophole to avoid paying pet fees. In some cases, pet owners tried to bring onboard comfort lobsters, squirrels, opossums, kangaroos, and Appaloosa horses. A New York artist famously tried yet failed to bring her peacock named Dexter onto a United Airlines flight.

In June 2017, Marlin Jackson was mauled by an emotional support dog on a Delta flight. He needed 28 stitches in his face, according to a $140 million lawsuit filed by Jackson against both the airline and the dog’s owner. In July 2019, an emotional support dog bit a flight attendant on Flight 3506 from Dallas to Greensboro, North Carolina. He needed five stitches on his left hand.

Since 2016, the number of ESAs grew from 500,000 to over 1 million. The ESA boom caused Airlines for America and 80 other organizations to urge the DOT to “adopt the definition of a service animal from the Americans with Disabilities Act.”


Emotional support animals that no longer qualify as service animals may travel as carry-on or cargo pets, as long as they meet size and weight requirements. Owners will have to pay pet fees, ranging from $99 each way on Frontier to $200 each way on Delta.

Large dog breeds can be transported as cargo. Cargo fees are based on the total weight of the dog and crate. According to PetRelocation, a Great Dane can cost up to $1,000 to ship.

We’ve listed the pet fees, cabin/cargo options, and size/weight restrictions for Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, Southwest, and United Airlines.

Airlines Pet Policy and Cost Comparison Chart (January 2021)


Price per pet 


Allowed in the cabin? 

Allowed in cargo? 

Size restrictions 

Weight restrictions

Alaska Airlines

Cabin: $100

Cargo: Varies by weight 



Hard kennels: 17” x 11” X 7.5”

Soft kennels: 17” x 11” x 9.5”

Cargo: 30” x 27” x 40”

20 lbs

Allegiant Airlines 




9” x 16” x 19”

20 lbs

American Airlines 

Cabin: $125 

Cargo: Varies by weight 


No, due to COVID-19

All kennels: 19” x 13” x 9”

Cargo: 40″ x 27″ x 30″ 

20 lbs

Delta Airlines

$125 to/from US, Canada, Puerto Rico

$75 to/from Brazil

$200 Virgin Islands/International


No, due to COVID-19

Airbus A318, A319/ A320: 24″ x 15. 5″ x 9.5″ 

Embraer E190: 18″ x 13.5″ x 10″ 

No limit

Frontier Airlines




Personal item: 8” x 14” x 18”

Carry-on bag: 10” x 16” x 24”

20 lbs

JetBlue Airlines 




17” x 12.5” x 8.5”

20 lbs

Spirit Airlines




Soft kennels: 18” x 14” x 9”


40 lbs

Southwest Airlines




18.5” x 8.5” x 13.5”

No limit 

United Airlines 

Cabin: $125

Cargo: Varies by weight


No, due to COVID-19

Hard kennels: 17.5” x 12” x 7.5”

Soft kennels: 18” x 11” x 11”

Cargo: No crates taller than 30”

No limit 




Alaska will accept ESAs that were booked before January 11, 2021, for flights prior to March 1, 2021. After March 1, it will allow two service dogs per person in the cabin. This includes psychiatric service dogs that provide assistance to people with “emotional or mental illnesses and specific learning disabilities.” Owners will need to electronically complete a Service Animal Air Transportation form that confirms their service dog’s health, behavior, and training at least 48 hours before travel.


American Airlines (AA) will not allow ESAs in the cabin after January 31, 2021. Owners will have to electronically submit a DOT form to the Special Assistance Desk at least 48 hours before their flight. Before AA issues a Service Animal ID (SVAN ID), employees may “ask certain questions to determine if your dog is a service animal acceptable for travel.” The SVAN ID is valid for 12 months or until the dog’s vaccination expires.


ESAs that were booked before January 11, 2021 are eligible to fly until May 1, 2021. After that date, Allegiant will allow two fully-trained service dogs per disabled passenger. Service animals in training, K9s, and search/rescue dogs are permitted on a case-by-case basis. Owners should email a DOT form at least 48 hours before departure. They should also arrive “at least two hours before their scheduled departure to ensure the animal verification process is completed.”


Delta Airlines will accept ESAs that were booked prior to January 11, 2021, but new bookings for ESAs are not allowed. Customers may travel with two trained services dogs. “Delta will lift its ban on pit bull-type dogs provided they meet documentation requirements for trained service animals,” according to a statement from the airline. Owners will need to submit a government-approved form through the Accessibility Service Request Form located in My Trips. If the flight is longer than eight hours, they will also have to fill out a Relief Attestation form. It verifies their “dog will not relieve itself in the aircraft or can do so in a sanitary manner.”


Frontier will allow trained dogs, cats, and miniature horses to travel through Jan. 31. On Feb. 1, it will accept two service dogs per person. Customers should submit a Service Animal Air Transportation form at least 48 hours before departure. Employees may ask “how an animal has been trained to assist with a disability or what work it has been trained to perform.” Service dogs may sit on the floor or in the customer’s lap (as long as they weigh less than 30 pounds). While they are not required to be in a pet carrier, they cannot extend into the aisle, occupy an empty seat, or encroach upon a neighboring seat.


JetBlue will honor booking made for ESAs before December 20, 2020, for flights through March 1, 2021. Service dogs in training are not permitted. A DOT form must be electronically submitted 48 hours before departure. JetBlue also watches the behavior of all service dogs to make sure that safety requirements are met before approving them for travel. Service dogs must be harnessed, leashed, or otherwise tethered. Small dog breeds can sit in their owner’s lap if they don’t touch any part of the seat or table tray. Additional seats can be purchased for service dogs that do not fit within the handler’s foot space.


On January 11, 2021, Spirit Airlines banned companion cabin animals. Service animals in training and ESAs (i.e., dogs, cats, birds, and rabbits) are still allowed to travel onboard as pets. The ultra-low-cost carrier does not require a health certificate for in-cabin pets. Though service dogs should have a service animal vest, harness, ID card, and registration. A Spirit team member will also ask for “assurance that your dog is trained to perform a task for a disability.”


Until Feb. 28, Southwest will continue to allow ESAs. Starting March 1, owners will need to complete a DOT form at the ticket counter or gate on the day of travel. They will also be asked to provide “credible verbal assurance that their animal is a trained service animal.” Employees may also “ask fact-finding questions to determine whether an animal is a trained service animal or eligible to be accepted as a pet.” Owners that make false statements may be subject to fines and other penalties.


United Airlines will accept ESAs that were booked prior to January 11, 2021 for travel through February 28, 2021. Starting March 1, passengers will be allowed to travel with two service dogs that are over the age of 4 months. They will be asked to complete a Service Air Transportation form and a Service Animal Relief Attestation form (for flights that are longer than 8 hours). Service dogs in training are allowed on board with a certified dog trainer.

Should airlines ban all ESAs from riding in their cabins for free (even with a doctor’s note)? Will the DOT’s new ESA rule change the way you travel with your dog? Please leave us a comment below! We would love to hear from you.

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