Updated Rules for Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) on Planes

Photo courtesy of Animal Planet

Emotional support animals are a specific type of service animal that provide emotional support for a documented mental health condition. Unfortunately, these animals have gotten something of a bad rep over the years which has been fostered by people playing it fast and loose with their psychological distress and emotional support animal documentation. This, in turn, has led to a lot of misconceptions as well as shifting rules for flying with an emotional support animal. More recently, there have been plenty of news editorials, like this one in the Chicago Tribune, discussing  the proper balance of accommodating passengers and their emotional support animals on planes. In this context, we wanted to talk about updated rules as well as the basic facts about traveling with emotional support animals on planes.

Are We Going to See More or Fewer ESAs on Planes?

This is a complicated question with multiple influences working in opposing directions. As Psychology Today points out, for example, the forms and procedures for documenting an emotional support animal has gotten a lot more stringent in the last year or two. The biggest change is the person must be under the direct care of the mental health professional who’s authorizing the need for an emotional support animal. 

On the other hand, there is a greater awareness than ever of mental health struggle. The need to be “under the care” of a mental health professional to get authorization for an ESA may serve as just the excuse that people need to talk to a therapist. This also means that, moving forward, the overwhelming majority of emotional support animals on planes are legitimate service animals. Just to say it, even though a person has no visible disability or mental health struggle, they may have a legitimate need to travel with their emotional support animal.

Not All Emotional Support Animals can Fly

Almost any animal can serve as an emotional support animal, but not all ESAs can fly on planes. Here’s a great story about how an alligator is helping a Pennsylvania man who’s struggling with depression Horses are one of the most common types of emotional support animals, and you’re not going to see them on a plane anytime soon. Moreover, the airlines have recently put new restrictions on the species that can fly on planes as ESAs including miniature pigs and certain types of birds and rodents. That said, the basic rules for dogs and cats haven’t really changed, and these remain, far and away, the most popular types of ESAs that can also fly on planes.  

Air Access Carrier Act

If, more than the basic facts, you’re looking to parse some of the official legalese surrounding ESAs, know that the Air Access Carrier Act is the primary law governing the rules and definitions for these emotional support animals. While this Air Access Carrier Act was originally passed in 1986, we recommend consulting the most recent guidance that was issued in 2005.

You can also visit our general knowledge guide for traveling with a service animal, including emotional support animals.

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