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In times past it was a relative rarity to spot an animal in a plane cabin. These days, however, times are changing fast; animals of all varieties can now be spotted in airplanes up and down the country. While most of these creatures are regular pets, some of them are emotional support animals (or ESAs for short), companions who provide a special kind of comfort to their owners. The majority of us experience a sense of joy and happiness when we interact with our pets, but the bond between an emotional support animal and their owner runs deeper.

In fact, describing them solely as “owners” is fairly limited; they should be more accurately described as patients, as emotional support animals provide a distinct treatment for their humans, a progressive form of therapy that has been shown to be remarkably effective when it comes to combating the debilitating symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other serious mental health issues. An ESA receives no training and doesn’t have a specific expertise; instead, they help their owners by being present at all times, and providing a source of comfort and security. Emotional support animals can be regular pets who are assigned ESA status, or they can be new additions to a household after a doctor has suggested them as a form of treatment. The status of an emotional support animal is confirmed by an ESA letter, a verified document from a mental health professional outlining that a patient suffers from a mental disorder and is entitled to the benefit of an ESA.

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Airlines are cracking down on ESA travel.

ESAs and their owners are able to avail of a number of laws specifically pertaining to mental health in America. The most pertinent one, which has hit the headlines in recent months, is the Air Carrier Access Act (or ACAA for short). Essentially, this law enables patients to bring their emotional support animal with them on the plane, which must be allowed by law. Usually you have to pay to bring an animal into the cabin, but ESAs are allowed to board for free, and can sit on their owner’s lap or even in a seat next to them. Any sort of animal can be an emotional support animal, and unless it’s physically impossible or dangerous for the animal to accompany their owner into the cabin, airlines are required by law to accommodate them.

However, Delta Airlines has recently released stricter measures for carrying emotional support animals on board their flights. After a series of ESA-related passenger safety incidents and numerous complaints of animals using the cabin as a makeshift toilet (which could certainly be testing on a longer flight), Delta has decide to take action. So how does this affect you and your ESA, and what measures can you take to avoid being denied permission to board your next flight?

Well, first of all, don’t panic. The ACAA is federal law, and as big a corporation as Delta Airlines undoubtedly is, they can’t change the law. Instead, they’re asking for a little more reassurance from ESA owners, mainly in the form of paperwork. From the 1st March 2018, when you book your emotional support animal on a flight, as well as presenting your (in-date!) ESA letter, you’ll need to sign a statement that vouches for your animal’s good behavior, and also provide proof of good health and up-to-date vaccination records at least 48 hours before you travel.  Delta usually charges an additional fee of $125 to bring an animal on board or in the cargo hold, and due to the large increase of emotional support animals being booked on flights in the last two years, airline management suspect that some people are gaming the system to avoid paying the fee.

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As long as your emotional support animal is well-behaved and verified, they’ll be allowed on board.

This might be the case, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t people flying every day who are genuinely in need of the support from their ESA. If you’re one of those people and are concerned about the crackdown around emotional support animals on flights, here’s what you can do to keep your ESA safe and legal on your next one.

For starters, always remember to bring your ESA letter, and make sure to keep it valid at all times; they last for one year, so if you’ve booked a flight a few months ahead, remember to keep track of when your letter expires.

Make sure that your emotional support animal is well-behaved around people and can remain in one place for a long duration without getting restless. Remember that travel can be stressful for animals as well as humans, so your ESA may react differently than you imagine once they’re actually in the air.

Make sure you have all your pet’s documentation ready to go, specifically the vaccination report and a bill of good health from your local vet. At the end of the day, remember that the law is designed to make sure true sufferers of mental health disorders can avail of the special conditions afforded to them. So as long as your emotional support animal is well behaved and all your paperwork is in order, you have nothing to fear from these new rules!

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