ESAs and the Air Carrier Access Act

Emotional Support Animals and the Air Carrier Access Act

ESAs and the Air Carrier Access Act

One of the most controversial matters concerning emotional support animals (ESAs) is traveling by air. In fact, air travel with any animal, including service animals (SAs) or traditional pets, is a concern that many people across the globe experience.

ESAs are considered by many to be something of a combination between a service animal and a pet. ESAs offer emotional support services to their owners but are not trained to behave in a particular manner.

Because of this, there is some question as to the protections offered by the Air Carrier Access Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act for individuals flying with ESAs. Airline attendants and passengers are increasingly concerned with the increase in uncaged animals on airplanes.

ACAA - Air Carrier Access Act - dogs on a plane

“Today’s in-flight movie will be Air Bud.”

Traditionally, airlines require small animals to travel in cages under the seat of their owner, while large animals travel in the cargo bay. ESAs, however, are allowed to travel with the owner in the open, without the restriction of being caged, much like SAs offering services to individuals who are deaf or blind.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of SAs and ESAs board airplanes every year.

ESA owners should be careful to prepare themselves in advance for traveling by air. It is important to know what airline regulations apply to ESAs, as well as what protections are offered to owners under federal laws.

Federal Laws and ESAs

The most important set of laws for ESA owners to be familiar with before flying is the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Under the ACAA, anyone with a diagnosis of a mental disability and an emotional support animal letter from a mental health professional verifying the emotional benefit of the animal will be allowed to travel with the animal.

If the requirements are met, the airline is not legally allowed to ask questions about the disability and cannot restrict ESA owners and their animals from boarding the airplane.

The Air Carrier Access Act also protects ESA owners from being charged a fee for their ESA accompanying them on the airplane so long as the appropriate requirements are met. If the airline refuses to allow the ESA onboard, it is important for the owner to immediately request a meeting with a Customer Resolution Official (CRO).

Airlines are legally required to employ CROs who are specifically trained in handling disability-related disputes and uncertainties.

In order to be covered by the Air Carrier Access Act and comply with airline regulations, there are certain requirements that ESA owners must meet. These requirements include:

  • Explanation of why the animal provides emotional support.
  • Verification letter from a licensed mental health professional prescribing or endorsing the animal as an ESA offering benefits for a particular mental disability.
  • The mental or emotional diagnosis must comply with the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

Best Practices for Flying with an ESA

Air Carrier Access Act and pets on a plane

The Emotional Support Animal Center recommends that ESA owners be practical and prepared when flying with an ESA. Some best practice recommendations are outlined below.

It is recommended to contact a prospective airline at least 48 hours in advance in the event that the ESA is too large to fit in a traditional airline seat. In such cases, it may be necessary to situate the ESA owner in a seat that will allow room for the ESA without obstructing pathways and doors.

Be prepared with appropriate documentation when approaching the ticket agent. If your information and ESA letter are valid, and your ESA letter is not more than one year old, the airline must allow you and your ESA to board without charging fees.

Be mindful that pets that are excessively loud, vicious, a nuisance, or threatening to other passengers may legally be denied service.

If your ESA is too large to sit on your lap, the airline attendant can request that the ESA sit on the floor. In most cases, small animals will be permitted to sit on the owner’s lap during the flight.

Plan ahead if you are nearing the one-year expiration of your ESA letter before flying. If your letter expires, you may not be protected by the ACAA and ADA and may be denied the rights offered therein.

If you have an ESA, be sensitive to the skepticism that may circulate about the real need for emotional support. Unlike a Seeing Eye dog, an ESA supports a disability that is not so obvious. Remember that you have legal rights but should also be respectful of others who may not understand your situation. Anger or hostility toward others, no matter how provoked, may complicate the situation unnecessarily.

Do you qualify for an ESA?

You can take our online screening to see if you qualify for an emotional support animal. It only takes a few minutes and is 100% free.

See If You Qualify For An Emotional Support Animal

Comments 38

  1. So a Liscenced Social worker could provide the letter certifying the need for the animal? Is there any other documents needed to fly?

    1. Some airlines have their own paperwork to download and upload to your assigned caseworker (for a fee), but I think the original letter should probably be carried on flights.

    1. I’m traveling internationally to Portugal!
      Along with a ESA letter,TAP portuguese airlines require their own form to be filled by my regular physician.
      This letter gets sent out to their own doctor who then aproves or deny !

      1. I would show your doc your CertaPet documentation (along with giving him the TAP forms). If you don’t already have certification, try googling: esa certification (documentation OR paperwork example).

  2. Me and my wife are travelling with both our ESA’s to Prague, Czech Republic, will there be any problems travelling from the US to there? I read something about possible quarantine in Europe? Thanks!

    1. Going through the UK is tricky. That’s the only problem of which I’ve heard. If going through there, check their requirements online and have all vaccines documentation either way.

  3. I trying to get my dog certified as an service dog , does anyone knows what are the requirements to get you dog legally certified as an service dog in New Jersey, I’ve look all over and all I seem to find are bogus websites selling fake certificates , vest and patches , can someone please help me with the necessary steps on making my Bella a service dog. I have several health issues as well as severe depression , anxiety, and severe arthritis.

    1. A Service Dog must be trained by an individual or company to perform a specific task or work to assist you with your disability. if your dog is not specifically trained to provide a service that a typical pet would, it is an ESA.

      Source: Part 35 Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services (as amended by the final rule published on September 15, 2010)

      Authority: 5 U.S.C. 301; 28 U.S.C. 509, 510; 42 U.S.C. 12134.
Subpart A—General § 35.104 Definitions

  4. Hi question I will be traveling to Poland from USA if I have the esa certificate can I travel with my dog without a pet carrier inside the airline? ( I have a yorkie)

  5. Hi

    I have a ESA and the attendant at Honolulu airport told us our dog would only be allowed on the flight if he was in a carrier. Thankfully we found your website and they allowed us to bring him on the flight after nearly an hour of fighting with us. United website said ESA were allowed and may or may not be in a carrier. Terrible experience but happy we found the information on your site that helped.

  6. Hi There, i am looking at getting both of my dogs registered as ESA , is there a different procedure or special or do i register them separately / individually ?

  7. I am pcs-ing to Honolulu in 11mos. A Dr. here suggested getting my large dog >ESA as he helps me cope with the diagnosed mental disorders and phobias i struggle with.Can you please recommend a licensed MHCP near Fort Hood, Texas I may speak with whom nay help me do this. Thank you

    1. Make sure you have your vet do ALL the health certificates and rabies shots 4 MONTHS before you come to Hawaii so you don’t have to quarantine you dog! Go online to Hawaii pet rules and get all the information. We are just leaving the island. You can go to I think is the website to get your ESA letter if needed. Good luck! If you are going to buy a house here, let me know. We can refer an agent to you!

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