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What to Know About Airline Travel with Your Emotional Support Animal

While many people would agree that air travel can be a stressful experience, disabled passengers often face countless unique challenges that make it even more so. Fortunately, the United States government has recognized that disabled individuals may need specific accommodations to make air travel feasible. For this reason, legislation such as the Air Carrier Access Act has been put into practice to guard against discriminatory practices that can negatively affect disabled individuals, establishing clear policies that could preserve their rights and access to applicable accommodations. If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) and are planning to travel via air, the Air Carrier Access Act guarantees you the ability to travel with your animal, with just a few specific exceptions. Understanding the laws can help you adequately prepare for air travel, enabling you to effectively communicate your need and defend your rights if needed. We’ve created a handy guide to the Air Carrier Access Act, as well as everything you need to know to successfully travel via airplane with your emotional support animal.

What is the Air Carrier Access Act?

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed in 1986, outlines specific regulations that must be followed by all airlines that operate within the U.S. (as well as those traveling between the U.S. and international destinations). The Department of Transportation (DOT) was tasked with creating detailed rules that protected disabled passengers from discrimination while traveling via airplane. In contrast to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ACAA focuses specifically on air travel rather than general public spaces. According to the Air Carrier Access Act, disabled passengers cannot be refused transport based on their disabilities. Additionally, disabled persons must be permitted to fly with their assistance animals without incurring pet fees or additional travel costs. The ACAA includes both service animals and emotional support animals in its regulations, requiring airlines to allow these types of pets to sit in the main airline cabin with their owners. Rather than being forced to stow their pets in the cargo hold, ESA owners are able to keep them at their feet (or in their lap). This allows ESA owners to successfully utilize their ESA to mitigate any difficulties or limitations associated with their specific disability or condition. Essentially, the goal of the ACAA rules is to reduce the unique challenges faced by disabled persons when traveling by air and ensure that everyone has equal access to proper respect, care, and satisfactory service. The ACAA protects your rights as an ESA owner and allows you rightful access (with few exceptions).

What Does the Air Carrier Access Act Mean for Emotional Support Animals?

The Air Carrier Access Act applies to a range of airline travel scenarios, including traveling with an emotional support animal. Here are the basic rules that will affect you as an ESA owner:
  • An airline cannot refuse or limit your transportation as a result of your disability or emotional support animal.
  • If you provide the required documentation (and your ESA meets requirements), you must be allowed to bring your ESA on the plane. Your ESA will be permitted to travel in the main cabin space with you, typically on the floor at your feet or in your lap.
  • You cannot be required to sit in a specific seat unless you have a large animal or your ESA will be in violation of safety regulations. For example, most airlines do not allow ESAs to be seated in an exit row.
  • An airline cannot charge you additional fees to accommodate your ESA.
Note that there are a few limitations to your rights under the ACAA, designed to preserve the safety of all passengers and flight crew. Your ESA must not be disruptive or aggressive, and airlines have the right to refuse extremely large ESAs or limit you to one ESA (per passenger). The following are never accepted for airline travel:  spiders, rodents, sugar gliders, and reptiles.  So plan accordingly.

Traveling with an Emotional Support Animal: FAQs

Here are a few of the most commonly asked questions about flying with an ESA.

Are airlines required to allow emotional support animals?

Yes, with just a few limitations. You must provide the required documentation (an ESA letter), and the airline can ask that you provide them advance notice of your request. Remember, your request can be denied if your ESA does not behave properly, demonstrating disruptive behavior such as barking, growling, jumping, or refusing to stay seated and out of the aisle.

Can my emotional support dog fly with me?

Yes. Emotional support dogs are among the most common types of ESA, and typically accepted by all airlines. Note that depending on the size of your dog, you may be required to keep them on the floor rather than your lap. Exceptionally large breeds may be refused passage, simply because the airline cannot safely accommodate them.

What documents do I need to travel with an emotional support animal?

You will need a valid ESA letter to travel with your emotional support animal. ESA letters are valid for one year from the date of issue, and must include several key components (see example letter below). Some airlines may also ask that your letter detail the size and breed of your ESA for their reference.

Are all types of emotional support animals allowed on an airplane?

No. Spiders, reptiles, rodents, and sugar gliders are not permitted on an airplane, regardless of ESA status. Very large animals, such as horses and llamas, are also typically refused due to size.

Do emotional support animals have to fly in a carrier?

Typically, your ESA is permitted to stay seated at your feet (not in the aisle). Many airlines allow you to place your ESA in an approved carrier if you choose, but it is not required. Keep in mind that you may not be allowed to sit in an exit row, and ESAs cannot be blocking the aisle.

Can emotional support dogs fly internationally?

Airlines providing service to and from the U.S. must allow dogs, but they are allowed to refuse other types of ESAs. You’ll be subject to the laws of foreign countries regarding the entry and exit of animals, so make sure to research specifics before traveling. Usually, your airline or the embassy can offer clear information and answer any questions.

Sample Letter from Doctor to Airline for ESA

An ESA letter is required for airline travel with your emotional support animal, with specific airlines requesting certain details be included. Not sure what your ESA letter should look like? Most licensed mental health therapists are sufficiently familiar with the requirements of the document, but it can be helpful for patients to be aware as well. Here’s a sample emotional support animal letter from a doctor to an airline, stating the recommendation for an emotional support animal:

Date Name of the Licensed Medical Professional (e.g. doctor, therapist, rehab counselor, psychiatrist) Address of Medical Practices

To whom it may concern:

(Name of ESA owner) is my patient and has been under my care since (date of first appointment or consultation). As a result, I am aware of his/her medical history, diagnosed mental/emotional condition, and related functional restrictions. (Name of ESA owner) meets the legal definition of disabled as outlined in the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

As a result of the aforementioned mental/emotional condition, (Name of ESA owner) has functional restrictions and limitations. I am prescribing an emotional support animal (ESA) to alleviate these difficulties and deal with his/her disability, including in travel.

Upon request, I can provide further information regarding my ESA recommendation for (Name of ESA owner).

Sincerely,

Signature/Printed Name of Licensed Professional

Note that the letter must be signed and dated by your doctor, and be printed on their official letterhead. Other requirements include documentation of the place it was issued, the doctor’s medical license number, and a clear statement of your disability and need for an ESA. Many patients find that it is helpful to request that the details of their ESA be included (e.g. type, breed, weight), especially if they are planning to use the letter for flying. Perhaps most importantly, your ESA letter is only valid for one year from the date of issue. If your letter is expired, you will need to request a renewed document in order to travel by plane with your ESA.

Tips for Traveling with An Emotional Support Animal

If you’re planning on flying with an emotional support dog or other types of ESA, here are a few tips that can help you minimize stress and hassle:

Before traveling

Call the airline ahead of time to confirm what documents are required. Let them know you will be bringing an ESA on the airplane. Double-check all documentation to avoid any conflicts on the day of travel. Ensure that your ESA has been suitably trained to behave in public, so that you can be confident that there will not be behavior issues at the airport or on the aircraft. Clarify the requirements of your specific airline to ensure you are properly prepared. Here are a few examples of the policies of several popular airlines in regards to ESA travel:

American Airlines ESA Policy

Your ESA letter must include specific details and must be provided to the airline at least two days prior to travel. Check the AA site for more information on traveling with service animals.

Delta Airlines ESA Policy

Your ESA must remain on the floor of the aircraft and is not permitted in a seat. It’s recommended that you provide the ESA ahead of time and contact the airline to request a seat assignment for your convenience. Read more on the Delta Airlines website.

Jet Blue ESA Policy

Your ESA letter should include specific details about your ESA (breed, size, etc.) as well as your flight confirmation number for staff reference. Review details on the Jet Blue website.

Southwest Airlines ESA Policy

ESAs are not permitted on flights traveling to Jamaica but are allowed in the cabin on all other domestic flights. Check the Southwest website to learn more about their ESA documentation guidelines.

United Airlines ESA Policy

ESA documents should be provided at least 48 hours before your scheduled departure, and your ESA must sit at your feet without being in the aisle. You also have the option of using an in-cabin kennel for small animals, but cannot sit in an exit row (due to safety regulations). More information available on the United Airlines website.

Virgin America ESA Policy

In addition to your ESA letter, you must also provide a health certificate if you are planning to travel to Hawaii. Details can be reviewed on their website (the airline is part of Alaska Air).

Give yourself plenty of time to check in and pass through airport security, taking advantage of online check-in and TSA pre-check if possible. Make sure your ESA has an opportunity to relieve itself before boarding the plane. Ask an airport staff member for the nearest service animal relief area. Organize all required documentation and make sure it is easy to access at a moment’s notice.

Onboard the airplane

Find a comfortable spot for your emotional support animal to be for the duration of the flight. Larger animals such as dogs are often most comfortable on the floor in front of you, while some small animals can sit in your lap (as long as it is safe). Make sure your emotional support animal is not blocking an aisle or emergency exit access. Know your rights: the airline cannot refuse your ESA simply because other passengers (or flight crew members) state they are uncomfortable. However, if your ESA behaves in a disruptive manner, including running, barking, growling, or jumping unprovoked, you can be asked to leave the aircraft.

For international travel

Understand that foreign airlines that operate to and from the U.S. are only required to allow dogs, and can lawfully refuse other types of ESAs. A U.S. airline traveling to a foreign country is subject to that country’s laws and policies regarding service animals. Not all countries allow service animals from other foreign countries. Contact the airline and/or embassy to find out whether your ESA is permitted by your destination country. Inquire about any specific requirements for legal entry/exit of your emotional support animal.

In the event of an issue

If your ESA is refused or you believe our Air Carrier Access Act rights are otherwise violated, you can ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Official (CRO). The CRO serves as the expert on all disability accommodation issues, and can often clarify the situation for either you or the airline staff as needed. The airline is required to provide a free CRO to you either in person via telephone during their operation hours.

Learn More about ESA Travel from Support Pets

Still have questions about traveling with your emotional support animal? Support Pets is more than happy to help. We understand that for many people, an emotional support animal is an invaluable part of their day-to-day life, especially during travel. Often, an emotional support animal is the only way many people can successfully navigate the stressful, emotional roller coaster of travel, so we know how important it is for you to be able to bring your ESA for support. For more information about your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and how you can make ESA travel work for you, contact Support Pets today.

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