dog in airport terminal on vacation

Flying with Emotional Support Animal: Cheap, Easy, Comforting

6 min read

There is a lot of stress associated with flying, though it is one of the safest, secure, reliable and well-regulated ways of travel, statistically speaking. It might be due to the spectacular nature of air accidents that do happen. And the media tends to amplify spectacular events instead of significant ones. Another reason might be due to human mistrust of flying as a concept. It seems somewhat unnatural, arrogant and defiant for a person to flitter where only birds are.

Anyway, air travel causes a lot of distress for many people. And while most people are only uncomfortable with it, some suffer from it greatly. Up to the point of experiencing panic attacks, hysteria or crippling fear. And while airlines are trying their best to make clients feel comfortable, and train their personnel to help passengers deal with a fear of flying. But there is another way!

There’s been a tendency for a couple of years now to use animals as emotional support providers. That is mostly the case for people, suffering from different disorders such as depressive disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, schizophrenia, suicidal tendencies, bipolar disorder, dyslexia, autism, and many others. These animals are called emotional support animals and assist ill people in daily life and, specifically, when they travel. Why has this phenomenon become so trendy? Because it works.

So what ESAs are all about?

grey cat clasped his paws a man's hand
Emotional support animals provide a psychological comfort to people with mental disabilities

The whole idea of such animals sounds wonderful. As it turns out, a person receives both the necessary emotional assistance and an animal, full of love and care. However, with more people getting emotional support animals (sometimes, it can even be a snake, a crocodile, or a spider), more concerns arise from airline companies and other transportation businesses. So, why people want to bring their pets onboard?

Regardless of the type of disorder, people can bring their emotional support animals on board to:

  • have a tactile contact to calm down a person;
  • prevent people from panic attacks during the flight;
  • decrease a blood pressure;
  • mediate oxytocin which contributes to better overall wellbeing;
  • provide companionship;
  • alleviate depression and loneliness, etc.

To be honest, the list is endless because the influence that animals have on people with medical conditions is miraculous.

ACAA and ESA rights

Airplane taking off from the airport.
ACAA is the main law that determines flying rights of people with disabilities

Airline Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a part of the US Statute that is designed to prevent discrimination of disabled people. Among other things, it covers accommodation for service and assistive animals. The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) considers ESAs to be a part of the assistive animals category.

Denying a reasonable request for an ESA from a passenger is a reasonable ground to file a complaint to DOT that can potentially bring heavy sanctions on the carrier. It may also be possible to file a discrimination case in court. But there are some buts.

Disputes between carriers and DOT

There has been a lot of legal back and forth recently in regard to ESA flying rights. To sum up in an oversimplified manner: DOT has announced that stricter rules regarding ESAs are going to be issued. At the same time, some air carriers decided to issue stricter rules on this matter by themselves. As the result, when DOT released their rules, they differed quite a bit from the ones carriers already had. Some aviation companies decided to dig their heels and go on with their own rules.

Delta airlines, for instance, were fined a hefty sum for banning ESA pitbulls from their flights. According to DOT, air carriers can't discriminate ESA dogs based on breed but only on size or personal behavior. Because of similar ongoing legal battles, we suggest you consult an air carrier, you are going to travel with, well in advance, and find out about their rules on ESAs. Nowadays many airline companies have different internal regulations concerning animals.

What is required to get your ESA on a plane free of charge

A dog in a toy wooden plane
Most emotional support animals are allowed to the plane cabin

ESAs may fly in a plane cabin at no charge. But you can bring no more than one support animal that must be clean, healthy, and well-behaved. Otherwise, an airline may deny it access to the plane. While an ESA is not required to have any specialized training, good behavior is paramount when it comes to air travel. An erratic, aggressive or loud and mischievous animal is likely be denied. Also, it must be small-sized which means it can occupy no more than one seat and can be seated on your lap or under the seat if required.

There are also species that airlines are not required to take on board. For instance, replies, rodents, ferrets, snakes, sugar gliders, and spiders. This restriction is there because there was a case of an ESA squirrel running away and causing a minor plain malfunction. Foreign carriers flying in and out of the US are only required to take dogs. US carriers don't have to take an animal that is illegal at the destination points, specifically, on flights to the foreign countries.

Other than that, you would need to warn an airline company 48 hours in advance about your intention to fly with an ESA. You would also need an ESA letter to prove that you are actually entitled to an emotional support animal. We will tell you how to get one later. Generally, no other documentation is required. However, some companies can ask for a vaccination record, a veterinary health form or some other documents. With that being said, there is a good reason to contact the carrier well in advance.

What are the best airlines to fly with ESAs?

Empty passenger airplane seats in the cabin
Though many airplanes allow ESAs on board, it is vital to inform the chosen airline in advance

The best airline companies to fly with pets are the ones that have loyal yet strict rules and regulations for pets. There are many US Airlines that allow emotional support animals like American Airlines, United, JetBlue, Southwest, Alaska Air, Spirit, Allegiant Air, etc.

Take for example United Airlines. This major American airline was founded almost 100 years ago and has tons of flying experience. Apart from having a reputation of the most trustworthy airline in the country, it also has pretty easy-to-follow rules concerning emotional support animals.

To get on board with United Airlines with your support animal, you must provide the documents listed above and travel according to its policies. Although United Airlines allows only cats and dogs, there’ve been no incidents with support animals so far.

Or take a look at American Airlines which provides flights to 350 destinations all around the world. Yes, the company is highly trustworthy, and, yes, it allows flying with emotional support or service animals for free. Just follow their enhanced requirements and be safe and sound. Besides, you should remember that American Airlines doesn’t allow ESA for flights to Auckland and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, even regardless of an airline's policy, remember that ESA letter is your best helper in journeys with your emotional support animal.

Ok, fine. How do I get one?

a basset hound with his ears flying away wearing goggles isolate

First, you are to be diagnosed by a therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist licensed in your state. Generally, either a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a medical doctor (M.D.) can diagnose a mental condition and prescribe treatment.  All psychiatric and most mental disorders can be a reason to warrant an ESA as a part of a therapy. Here is the list of impairments that qualify for ESA registration.

If you are diagnosed with one of these disorders, you also should get a letter from the same or another specialist that states that you need an emotional support animal to alleviate symptoms or avoid complications. ESA status also has some other boons apart from the air travel.
But the most precious boon of all is, of course, the love and support that our little friends provide either on the ground or high in the sky. We wholeheartedly wish happy, easy and safe comfortable travel to you and your animal companion!

by GetESA

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ESA Laws and Regulations