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Emotional Support Animals Take to the Skies

By Maya Stanton
September 25, 2017
Cat on a plane
Ivan Kokoulin/Dreamstime
Of all the effective methods for relieving the stress and anxiety associated with airline travel, ESAs are surely the warmest and fuzziest.

Can flying with your pet ease anxiety?

As any nervous flyer knows, there are a few tried-and-true methods for dealing with pre-trip panic—and no, self-medicating at the airport bar probably isn’t the best strategy. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends a list of concrete steps to overcome a fear of flying, skills learned in cognitive behavioral therapy can help manage anxiety, and prescription meds can be a lifesaver, but there’s an additional option to consider, and it’s a warm, fuzzy one.

Thanks to a 2003 update to the Department of Transportation’s policy regarding service animals, pets that offer emotional support to people with disabilities are cleared for takeoff, and more travelers than ever are looking to furry friends for in-flight comfort and support. Though airline policies differ, all emotional support animals (ESAs) must be well-behaved (pigs that defecate in the aisles are decidedly unwelcome) and accompanied by recent documentation from a medical professional (companies such as ESA Doctors will provide this service for a fee). As conditions vary, check airline websites before you book, and be sure to consider the requirements for your destination—places like Hawaii, the U.K, Japan, and New Zealand have restrictions on entry and exit. Here’s what to expect from the big six:

American Airlines allows emotional support animals at no charge, as long as they fit on your lap, at your feet, or under the seat, and don’t block the aisle. Forget about that extra legroom, though: For security reasons, you won’t be able to sit in an exit row with a service animal in tow. You’ll need to submit an authorization form or provide a doctor’s letter to reservations at least 48 hours before your flight—if the airline can’t validate your documentation, your companion may have to fly in a kennel.

Delta welcomes ESAs in the cabin, but that doesn’t mean your trip will turn into a Noah’s ark reenactment: The airline bans hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, non-household birds such as chickens, dirty or smelly animals, and anything with a tusk or a hoof. And even if you’re alone in your row, flight attendants will expect your animal to travel in the space below you—pets aren’t allowed in seats designed for human cargo. Passengers with disabilities are entitled to seating accommodations, so make sure you get your assignment when you book; you’ll have to present documentation on letterhead from a licensed medical or mental-health professional upon check-in (a digital version is ok, as long as the pertinent details can be verified), and you’ll be entitled to preboarding if you meet the requirements and give the gate agent the heads-up first.

Because of public health and safety concerns, JetBlue will also deny boarding to passengers with unusual animals such as snakes, rodents, and birds with unclipped wings, but as long as your ESA doesn’t fall in those categories, and you call and advise customer service of your animal before flying, you should be in the clear. JetBlue airport personnel can request your documentation at any time, though, so keep it on hand—a hard copy on your doctor’s letterhead and an electronic version in a non-editable format (like a PDF) are both fine, but email or Word documents won’t be accepted.

If you’re booking a Southwest flight online, you can alert the airline of your intention to travel with an ESA via the site’s traveler-info page; you can also notify customer service after the fact with a quick call or click. Along with the usual suspects mentioned above, Southwest won’t accept therapy dogs for transportation, and all animals must be positioned so they don’t block evacuation paths in the event of an emergency—so, either on the floor or on your lap, but definitely not in the exit row. (Note: If you plan to travel with your ESA on your lap, it must meet the somewhat ambiguous requirement of being smaller than a two-year-old kid.) Bring current documentation on your doctor’s letterhead, and brace for a few fact-finding questions at the airport—though employees can’t ask about the specifics of your disability, they can and probably will enquire as to what assistance your animal provides.

As long as they sit at your feet without sticking out in the aisle, ESAs with the proper documentation are accepted on United flights. At a minimum, you’ll want to give the airline 48 hours advance notice, but it’d be wise to allow more time—the airline’s accessibility desk has to receive and validate your documentation prior to travel, including contacting your mental health professional for verification, and if they can’t validate, you’ll have to transport your animal as a pet and pay the relevant fees.

Virgin also requires recent documentation, such as a letter from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker, to substantiate disability-related claims for an onboard ESA. Service animals don’t have to be in a pet carrier, but they do have to be confined to your own space and can’t be in a seat or obstruct aisles. And as always, leave the pet snake at home—no reptiles, rodents, or other animals that present health risks are allowed onboard.

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