One of the things that has created such a stir with emotional support animals in recent months is the controversial Air Carrier Access Act, which allows individuals with disabilities to fly with their ESA. Traditionally, pets would be required to travel in the cargo bay away from their owners, but with the Air Carrier Access Act, ESA owners are now able to travel with their pets in the main cabin, uncaged, much like their highly trained service animal counterparts, which offer assistance to those with severe, debilitating conditions such as blindness or cerebral palsy.
ESAs are considered somewhat of a mix between service animals and pets in that they are there to offer emotional support for individuals with psychological, mental or minor physical disabilities; however, they lack any formal training to do so, making them more like a traditional pet than a specialized service animal.
Because of this, there is still some question as to the protections offered by the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act for individuals flying with ESAs. Both airline attendants and passengers have become increasingly concerned with the huge influx of passengers flying with uncaged animals, so it’s important to prepare yourself in advance when flying with an ESA. It’s important to know exactly what airline regulations apply to ESAs as well as what protections are offered to owners under federal law.
What Are Emotional Support Animals?
Emotional support animals are used as tools for people suffering from mental, psychological and minor physical conditions. They offer emotional support to their owners in times of unrest and anxiety and help them to assimilate back into society and live as normal a life as possible.
No formal training is required for pets to be registered as an ESA, unlike service animals which require rigorous training to support individuals with severe and debilitating conditions. This means that ESAs are able to offer support for a much broader range of conditions. The most common are include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, attention deficit disorders, panic and personality disorders, and phobias.
To register your pet as and ESA, you’ll first have to seek treatment from a licensed mental health professional and provide them with your medical history and the reasons why you believe that your life would be improved by access to an ESA. If the doctor agrees with your assessment, then they’ll provide you with a recommendation letter that you can then use to register your pet and receive any further documentation that might be required for housing or travel.
The Air Carrier Access Act and Emotional Support Animals
The most important set of laws for ESA owners to be familiar with before flying is the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, anyone with a formal diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional and a verification letter that states that the individual would benefit from emotional support and should be allowed to travel with the animal can fly with their ESA. If these requirements are met, then the airline is not legally allowed to ask any questions about the individual’s disability and cannot restrict access to their ESA while flying or boarding the plane.
The Air Carrier Access Act also exempts individuals from paying any extra fee that may usually be incurred from traveling with a pet. If for whatever reason the airline or their staff refuse to allow the ESA on board, the owner should immediately ask to speak to the customer resolution official (CRO). CROs are specifically trained to deal with issues relating to disabilities, and airlines are legally required to employ CRO and make them available when required.
Things to Consider When Traveling with Your ESA Under The Air Carrier Access Act
First, if you intend on flying with an ESA, then you should be fully prepared with all required legal documentation before flying.
It is recommended by most airlines to contact them with your intention to fly with an ESA at least 48 hours prior to departure so they can ensure that you, your emotional support animal and the other passengers have enough room and are as comfortable as possible when flying.
Your ESA letter expires annually, so make sure that all your documentation is completely up to date and on hand when required. If your ESA letter expires, then you may not be protected by the Air Carrier Access Act and could be denied access to your flight.
Be mindful when flying with your emotional support animal that they are not disruptive or noisy in any way. Not only is it inconsiderate to your fellow passengers, but also the airline is able to legally deny you access to the plane.