One of the main reasons that you may want to register an emotional support animal is so it can accompany you on a flight. Having a fear of flying is a common affliction, and taking your ESA animal along for the ride can be a soothing balm to frazzled nerves or psychological distress. But are you legally allowed to take emotional support animals with you when you travel on a plane? Does the law support ESA owners?
The short answer is yes. Federal law does classify emotional support animals as being in their own special category apart from service animals. In fact, ESAs can be any household pet (typically a dog or cat but sometimes more unusual animals) that has been prescribed to an individual with a specific emotional or psychological condition.
Some of the emotional or psychological conditions that emotional support animals are recognized as helping with include anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or other mood disorder, phobias (including social phobia and fear of flying), and panic disorder.
Individuals taking an emotional support animal on a plane are usually required by the airline to provide notice up to 48 hours in advance and check in one hour earlier than the normal check-in time. When arriving at the airport you’ll need to present your emotional support animal letter along with your ID and other flight documents at the check-in desk.
The airline can choose to offer optional services to passengers with an ESA, but they don’t have to under the Airline Carrier Access Act. Below we explain the process of traveling with an emotional support animal so you know your rights.
What Info Will I Need to Provide?
When traveling with an ESA, you can’t just walk on up to the airport on the day of flying and say, “I need my pet so that I feel better when I fly.” There’s a bit more involved than that. You must be able to present a prescriptive letter from a qualified mental health professional (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker) on professional letterhead that outlines your need to have an emotional support animal with you when you fly. It can be a photocopy, but the letter must be less than a year old. If you don’t have this documentation, the airline is not obligated to allow you on board the plane.
Under the Airline Carrier Access Act, the ESA letter must state the following:
- The passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the DSM-V.
- The passenger needs the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination.
- The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional, and the passenger is under his or her professional care.
- The date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.
Will There Be Additional Charges for My ESA Animal?
No, if you have a current emotional support animal letter and your pet is officially recognized as an ESA, the airline can’t charge you any additional boarding fees.
Does My ESA Animal Need to Wear a Vest or Badge?
No, ESAs don’t have to wear an identifying badge or vest on a plane, but you can have it wear one if you like.
Can It All Go Horribly Wrong at the Airport?
Unless your ESA animal is large, noisy or liable to cause health and safety issues, you shouldn’t have any problem. But it pays to be aware that an airline can have the last say if they think it will be too disruptive or if there are sanitation issues. Any refusal must be put down in writing because it is a violation of the law. The airline may also be subjected to fines and legal action if they deny an ESA on board without reason.
Will I Get to Sit Beside My ESA Animal?
Yes, usually your ESA can sit beside your or in your lap if it is safe for them to be there. You may be asked to have it on the floor below your seat for takeoff and landing if it can comfortably fit there. If it can’t, then they are obliged to offer you another seat to accommodate your ESA.
What About Traveling with an Unusual ESA Animal?
Sometimes people travel with unusual or exotic ESAs, so it’s good to know what you can and can’t do if you have one. These are trickier as the airline must make a call on whether they pose a health and safety risk by traveling in the cabin. For example, a snake, pig or miniature horse might cause a significant disruption to flight service or to other passengers. But there have been several cases of unusual ESAs on flights, including a turkey, a kangaroo and a pig, so it’s safe to say that some airlines don’t just refuse outright and consider the case of each emotional support animal fairly as they need to under the law.