Delta Cracks Down on Emotional Support Animal Guidelines

Delta Airlines is raising hackles with an announcement that will tighten guidelines for service and emotional support animals in the cabin. The air carrier claims that “untrained animals in flight” are causing safety risks for passengers and crew. Meanwhile, advocates insist that Delta is behaving in a discriminatory fashion.

The situation highlights growing resentment towards “fake” emotional support animals, as well as the challenges in regulating public spaces to make them safe for everyone.

It’s important to distinguish between service and emotional support animals, though neither are pets. Service animals are trained to perform specific tasks that a disabled person cannot complete independently; you may have heard of guide dogs, but service animals can also assist D/deaf people, mentally ill people, people with seizures and people with mobility disorders, among others.

By law, they must be allowed into all public accommodations, though it is legal to ask which tasks the animal performs — and to eject service animals that are not behaving. Service animals must be dogs or, in special cases, miniature horses. They receive protections under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

Emotional support animals — not limited to dogs — do not perform a specific service, but they do provide comfort to people with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. They are not entitled to ADA protections and access to public accommodations. However, the ACAA does mention emotional support animals, requiring airlines to allow them to fly in the cabin for free, and some housing regulations also protect them. In both cases, individuals with ESAs must have a letter from a medical professional.

Many people derive tangible benefits from animal companions, and for people with anxiety, an animal can help mitigate the stress of travel. But in recent years, the lack of regulation and clarity on the issue has led to a tide of untrained or poorly socialized animals — pets — being labeled as “emotional support animals” by people who transparently indicate that they’re doing so in order to take their pets with them everywhere. Sometimes, they go a step further and even try to claim they’re service animals.

These rule-breakers rely on numerous websites that allow people to obtain a letter or certificate — for a fee — along with insignia to add to their pets’ harness. Some sites even advise that people fake emotional support animal status to get perceived “perks” — like having a pet in housing that disallows it, or flying with a pet loose in the cabin for free. Not discussed is the need for the animal to be well-behaved and minimally intrusive.

And that stands to impact people who really do need service or emotional support animals. Animal attacks are not uncommon, and neither is resentment from people angry about ill-behaved animals or frustrated about being exposed to allergens — and unusual choices of species often raise eyebrows.

Delta’s solution: The airline will require a doctor’s letter for people with emotional support animals, as well as health certificates indicating that animals have current vaccinations. But in addition, emotional support animal handlers need a “signed document” testifying to their animals’ good behavior – not proof of specific training, contrary to currently circulating rumors. The airline is also extending this requirement to psychiatric service animals, which are not support animals. Travelers also need to give the airline 48 hours notice.

On the surface, these requirements don’t seem too extreme. Animals should be vaccinated anyway, and in the case of ESAs, airlines already require doctors’ notes. The requirement for a behavioral voucher is vague enough to be worrying, though.

These regulations are often enforced at the gate by untrained airline personnel who have to make judgment calls, and this could be a recipe for disaster. If it evolves into a requirement to complete a specific training program, that could introduce financial barriers for ESA handlers, and it may even be against the law.

The 48-hour notice is also a tough pill to swallow for some frequent fliers or people who travel in emergencies – if you’re booking a ticket 24 hours in advance, how are you supposed to meet this requirement?

One guide dog handler notes that Delta’s move may be an opening shot at the Department of Transportation: Clarify the law, or airlines will do their best to interpret it. If other airlines follow suit, we could end up with an even more confusing tangle of regulations across different airlines. What happens, for example, for codeshare partners or people completing trips on multiple airlines?

Disability rights advocates are watching this case with concern: The rise in fake emotional support animals has had real consequences for people seeking accommodations for service animals and legitimate emotional support animals. If the government reacts to Delta’s move by creating significant access barriers, those could infringe on rights to access and inclusion — and the result could be a messy, protracted lawsuit.

Photo Credit: FreeUsePhotos/Flickr


Marie W
Marie W6 months ago


John B
John B11 months ago

Thanks for sharing the info.

Thomas M
Past Member 11 months ago

thanks for posting

heather g
heather g11 months ago

It's awkward for everyone, once people have abused a service.

Marija M
Marija M11 months ago

tks for sharing.

Dot A
Dot A11 months ago

It appears to me that the airlines is being responsible. I find no fault here. Animals should board with certain guidelines, and the owners must take that responsibility. It makes sense.

Past Member
.11 months ago

Not the airlines fault it has to take these kind of actions to weed out the frauds.

Sonia M
Sonia M11 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Cathy B
Cathy B11 months ago

Thank you for posting.

Winn A
Winn A11 months ago

Petition Signed