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Animals on planes are a rare site indeed. Can you remember the last flight you took that included an animal in the cabin? Probably not. When pets do travel, they are usually stowed in the hold, preferably sedated, and are never free to roam around the cabin — unless they happen to be service animals or emotional support animals. Thanks to legislation in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), these types of pets are allowed to travel with their owners or patients out in the open, free of the confines of a cage or box.

The Air Carrier Access Act was established in 1986, and similar to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it is intended to prevent discrimination against passengers with disabilities during air travel. Flying on an airplane has become a major feature of our 21st-century lives. Millions travel by air daily, and it is largely convenient, safe and cost-effective. It makes sense that everyone has the right to this functional travel method and should be free to avail of the benefits of airplanes without fear of being discriminated against for a mental or physical disability.

So how exactly does the Air Carrier Access Act shake down when it comes to emotional support animals, and how can you make it work for you?

What Is an Emotional Support Animal?

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Once an emotional support animal has been prescribed, all that’s required to certify it is what’s known as an emotional support letter, which is issued by the doctor.

One part of the problem lies in the definition of an emotional support animal. They’re usually considered somewhere between a pet and a service animal, though they appear to be just a regular pet. This is in keeping with their owners. On the surface, mentally afflicted people appear to be just like everyone else. However, people suffering from disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar face an uphill battle every day.

An emotional support animal is prescribed to be a companion to these people. They can be an existing pet, or a new treatment put forward by a registered physician. Once an emotional support animal has been prescribed, all that’s required to certify it is what’s known as an emotional support letter, which is issued by the doctor.

Why Are Emotional Support Animals So Misunderstood?

Another part of the problem is the relatively recent introduction of emotional support animals as a form of treatment. As with landlords, not all airline staff are going to be up on their mental health treatment plans, especially not recent and progressive ones. With blind or deaf people, it’s easy to see the affliction and the reason for their animal. The concept of therapy dogs is relatively easy to grasp and not all that unusual. But when it comes to emotional support animals, it might take a bit of explaining, which means you’re best to go in armed with all the information and rights associated with the Air Carrier Access Act.

What Does Everyone Need to Know About the Air Carrier Access Act?

Your emotional support animal situation is best explained to the flight staff you encounter at the initial check-in. Don’t wait until you’re about to board the plane to bring up your emotional support animal as that can lead to a lot of time pressure and delays at the gate. Even though you’re well within your right to bring a designated emotional support animal on board, it’s courteous to the airline staff to explain your position ahead of time. Everything about flying with an emotional support animal will be easier if you remember that the staff is just trying to do their job.

This will also save you a lot of stress in the long run, too. If your animal is too large to fit either on your lap or in a traditional airline seat, it’s best to contact the airline at least two days before you travel, so they have time to accommodate you.

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The Air Carrier Access Act won’t work for you if your emotional support animal is being vicious, threatening, loud or disturbing to other passengers.

Another important thing to remember is to keep your emotional support animal under control. The Air Carrier Access Act won’t work for you if your emotional support animal is being vicious, threatening, loud or disturbing to other passengers. In that case, the airline is legally allowed to deny you and your animal entry to the flight.

If you’re constantly with your pet, then everything should be OK as they should be well used to traveling around with you. Remember, though, air travel can be stressful for animals, too! If it’s your first time flying with your emotional support animal, make sure they’re comfortable and that you’re confident about your ability to keep them under control.

Basically, as long as you have your current and certified emotional support letter and remain calm and assured in the face of potentially difficult airline staff, the Air Carrier Access Act will work for you.

Remember, like the Fair Housing Act, no one is allowed to question the specifics of your disability. That’s private info that the law expressly forbids probing into. All that matters is the emotional support letter. Also, bear in mind those have to be updated every year, so keep on top of that if you have a flight coming up. You don’t want to be left stranded at the gate with an outdated emotional support letter!