If you want your pet to accompany you on a plane, it will normally be banished from the cozy cabin and exiled to the noisy, cluttered cargo hold. It’s easy to understand why airlines wouldn’t want a free-for-all in the passenger cabin with unpredictable animals taking up seats and running amok down the aisles. But what happens when people require their animals to travel with them, not for companionship but as part of their medical treatment for various afflictions? Well, they should be afforded special rights of course. It would be inhumane to deprive a blind person of their guide dog, and recently, the powers that be have come to the same conclusion about emotional support animals.

ESAs are prescribed to people who suffer from a variety of mental disorders, from depression and anxiety to autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are pets that require no special training to assist or treat their patients. As far as the animals are concerned, they’re just a regular pet. However, simply through their presence, these emotional support animals provide a very special form of therapy to their owners.

Their constant companionship has been shown to be highly effective in combating the most common symptoms of mental afflictions. All you need is an emotional support animal letter from a licensed medical professional saying that you require it. Then it’s just a matter of choosing which animal you want. Emotional support dogs are the most common, but any species is fair game when it comes to ESAs. You can also upgrade your existing pet to ESA status. The most important thing is that they provide comfort to you.

Two Laws that Protect ESAs and Their Owners

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Because ESAs are a relatively new phenomenon, there is still some confusion among airlines about how they apply to the Air Carrier Access Act.

When it comes to the rights of ESAs and their owners, there are two laws that are applicable: the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The more controversial of the two is the Air Carrier Access Act.

Because ESAs are a relatively new phenomenon in therapeutical psychiatric treatment, there is still some confusion among airlines and staff about how they apply to the Air Carrier Access Act or if they are covered at all. Well, rest assured: They are.

The Air Carrier Access Act explicitly states that anyone with a mental health diagnosis and an accompanying emotional support animal letter from a medical professional will be allowed to travel with their ESA. Furthermore, if the above requirements are met, the airline staff are legally not entitled to ask specific questions about the person’s disability, and they’re not permitted to restrict ESAs and their owners from boarding the aircraft together.

Some airlines may try to introduce some kind of fee or charge for bringing an emotional support animal on board. This is also illegal, and if it occurs, your immediate recourse is to request a meeting or consultation with the airline’s customer resolution officer (CRO). These officers are employed to deal specifically with disability-related disputes, complaints and situations. Every airline is required by law to employ a CRO, so make sure to request their presence if you ever find yourself in any ESA-based dispute.

What ESA Owners Need to Do Under the Air Carrier Access Act

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Smaller animals will be allowed to sit on their ESA owner’s lap, but larger ones, such as emotional support dogs, might be required to sit on the floor.

That’s the airline’s side of the deal, but in order to be covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, ESA owners also have some requirements to fulfill. They must be able to provide a clear and concise explanation of why the animal provides them with emotional support and be able to produce the specific emotional support animal letter that entitles them to have the animal. This letter must be no more than a year old, concern the person in question and be signed off by a medical health professional. Lastly, the mental illness in question must conform with the official mental health bible: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). If all this sounds like a lot of stress, don’t worry. Every major disorder is listed in the DSM, so you won’t be held up over that. It might help to retain a note of the specific reference to your particular disorder so that you can produce it if asked.

The other thing to keep in mind when flying with an ESA is to make sure it’s both practical and considerate to others. Animals can be loud, unpredictable and volatile, so make sure your ESA animal is well-behaved and as unobtrusive as possible to other passengers and airline staff. If it appears threatening or hostile toward others, you might be legally denied permission to bring it on.

Smaller animals will be allowed to sit on their ESA owner’s lap, but larger ones, such as emotional support dogs, might be required to sit on the floor. Make sure your ESA animal is comfortable around other people and crowds and is content with staying still for long periods. All in all, if you’re well prepared and know what the Air Carrier Access Act does and doesn’t cover, you should have no problem jet-setting with your ESA anywhere you choose.