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As air travel starts up again, emotional support animals get left behind

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A federal rule change at the behest of airline trade groups is kicking support animals off of flights — and prompting an argument over "legitimacy"
As a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW), LeAnn Egeto is passionate about training her miniature pinscher, Habibi, to serve as an emotional support animal.

Professionally, Egeto has seen clients connect with animals after recalling a traumatizing event from their past. Personally, she's experienced the benefits of having the comfort and support of an animal. Before she got Habibi — right before the pandemic shut down the country — she had Willie, a rescue mutt. Before Willie passed away, he and Egeto used to fly between Boston and Florida together. He'd sit on her lap and provide support during the flight, and during her visits with her family.

"When I flew to go see my mom or I flew to go see my father, which are really complicated relationships and can very easily trigger episodes of dissociation and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], my dog helped me stay grounded," Egeto said. "I used him as an ESA [emotional support animal] for my own PTSD and anxiety."

But flying from the East Coast to the South is no longer an option for Egeto and Habibi.

In December 2020, when very few Americans were traveling, the Department of Transportation (DOT) quietly announced a final ruling in a revision to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) stating that U.S. carriers would no longer accommodate emotional support animals. The only service animals that would be accommodated would be service dogs, a category that generally doesn't include dogs trained solely for emotional support. By January 2021, Southwest, Delta, United, Alaska, JetBlue and American Airlines had all announced that they would no longer allow emotional support animals in accordance with the DOT's guidance.

While details vary between airlines, the new provisions around emotional support animals are in stark contrast to the pre-pandemic era. Previously, DOT guidance said that airlines could not restrict passengers from traveling with emotional support animals; now, if a passenger wants to bring…
Nicole Karlis
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