Can Emotional Support Animals Fly for Free with You? Yes, although airlines differ in their exact requirements. And before you fly everywhere with your ESA, please consider your fellow passengers as well–more on this below.
TravelSort reader Linda writes “We love our dog, but always leave him in good hands at home, mostly because we think it would be hard for him on long flights, but also because United charges $125 each way, or $250 roundtrip, to take him on the flight. And yet increasingly I see dogs on my flights and have heard that many of them travel free as Emotional Support Animals. What distinguishes them as such, and can anyone do this to fly for free with their pet?”
Great question, since many are noticing more animals on their flights, and not all of them are Service Animals, such as seeing eye dogs or dogs trained to help with a major life task. Many are Emotional Support Animals, or ESAs, and if the proper documentation is submitted on time, they are permitted to travel with their owner for free on most flights.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Unlike Service Animals that are rigorously trained to help their owners with specific tasks on account of physical or psychiatric disabilities, Emotional Support Animals are not trained for tasks as such; their mere presence provides the necessary emotional support. They can be any species of animal, although most commonly are dogs, cats, miniature pigs, monkeys, birds and the like.
Are U.S. Airlines Required to Transport Emotional Support Animals?
Yes, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, Title 49, Section 41705, prohibits commercial airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. U.S. carriers are required to transport all service animals (including emotional support animals) *except* for certain unusual support animals such as snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders.
Do Airlines Have Size or Other Requirements for Emotional Support Animals?
Because emotional support animals have to be able to fit on your lap or at your feet or under the seat in front of you, they must be quite small, and you are not allowed to sit in an exit row with them. They also need to behave and not endanger other passengers.
United Airlines Emotional Support Animal Policy
- The passenger's doctor or mental healthcare professional must complete the United Airlines Emotional Support Animal Authorization or a similar one containing all the same information.
- The authorization form or written statement must be sent to the United Airlines Accessibility Desk by fax (872-825-0208) or email (email@example.com) at least 48 hours prior to travel for documentation verification
- The passenger should have the original authorization form and be prepared to present it to airline representatives while traveling.
- The authorization form is valid for one year from the date the licensed medical or mental health professional treating the person has signed the form.
- Other documentation may be required for travel entering or exiting an international location.
- Service animals must be properly harnessed for the duration of the flight. Small animals may remain in the passenger's lap during the flight. If a carrier will be used, it must meet the USDA guidelines and fit under the aircraft seat.
- The emotional support animal must be trained to behave appropriately in a public setting. Animals found not to have been trained to behave will only be accepted in accordance with United's current pet policies or may be denied boarding.
American Airlines Emotional Support Animal Policy
- The Emotional Support Animal (ESA) must be small enough to sit on your lap, at your feet, or under the seat in front of you, and cannot block the aisle
- To fly with an ESA, your doctor must complete American Airlines' Emotional Support Animal Authorization Form (or a written statement with all of the information, on the doctor's letterhead) and fax it to 817-967-4715 or email it to Sacdesk.firstname.lastname@example.org at least 48 hours before the flight.
- The authorization form must be less than 1 year old
Delta Airlines Emotional Support Animal Policy
Delta is reviewing its Emotional Support Animal procedures after a veteran's emotional support dog mauled another passenger on a June 4, 2017 flight. Passengers wanting to bring an Emotional Support Animal should contact Delta Reservations at 888-750-3284.
According to prior Delta guidelines, the following animals are not permitted on board as emotional support animals: hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders (a kind of marsupial), reptiles, non household birds, animals with tusks or hooves, and animals of any kind that are improperly cleaned or with a foul odor.
Alaska Airlines Emotional Support Animal Policy
While Alaska Airlines doesn't explicitly specify that you must provide documentation 48 hours or more in advance of your flight, they do recommend advising them as soon as possible if you will be bringing a service or support animal, and policy states that you must arrive at the airport at least 2 hours prior to departure when traveling with an animal.
Before boarding, you must present current documentation to one of our customer service agents. It must not be more than one year old and it must be on letterhead from a mental health professional or medical doctor who is treating your mental health-related disability. The letter must state the following:
- That you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fourth Edition (DSM IV)
- That you need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination
- The letter must come from a licensed mental health professional, you must be under his/her professional care.
- The letter MUST contain the date, the mental health professional's or medical doctor's license, and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.
All of the above specific criteria must be provided to accept your emotional/psychiatric support animal for travel in the passenger cabin. Advance notice is strongly recommended to ensure all paperwork is in order. When traveling with an emotional/psychiatric support animal you are not permitted to sit in an emergency exit row.
As with Delta, Alaska specifies that the following are not accepted on flights, even if they are emotional support animals
- Sugar gliders
- Non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game birds, and birds of prey)
- Animals improperly cleaned and/or foul odor
- Any unusual or exotic animals
JetBlue Emotional Support Animal Policy
- Advise JetBlue of your service animal prior to your flight by calling 1-800-JETBLUE (538-2583).
- Service animals may not obstruct an aisle or any other area used for an emergency evacuation. Service animals typically should remain on the floor; however, if the animal is small and well-behaved, circumstances may permit the animal to remain in your lap during all stages of flight.
- Unusual animals will not be allowed on JetBlue flights (ex. snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders) even as Service or Emotional Support Animals, as they pose unavoidable safety and/or public health concerns. Birds that do not have their wings “clipped or pinioned” may also be refused carriage.
- The customer has a mental health-related disability.
- The animal accompanying the customer is necessary to the customer’s mental health or treatment.
- The number and type of animal(s)
- The individual providing the assessment of the customer is a licensed mental health professional or physician and the customer is under his or her professional care.
- The mental health professional's or physician's license number OR the type of license, the issue date and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued
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