Emotional Support Animals Owners 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.
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 with a 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 ACAA 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 ACAA 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
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.