Passengers traveling with a service animal should review their airline’s service animal policies, but these policies are also based on the Air Travel with Service Animals regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation. We’re not going to try to answer every possible scenario involving a service animal, but we can provide you with an overview of your basic rights and responsibilities when it comes to traveling with a service animal, including emotional support animals.
Once you’re familiar with these basic rules, you’ll be able to quickly review individual airline assistance animal policies and know what to expect when flying with your service animal or emotional support animal.
What is a Service Animal?
Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), a service animal is “any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a qualified person with a disability; or any animal that assists qualified persons with disabilities by providing emotional support. Documentation may be required of passengers needing to travel with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal.”
Rights and Responsibilities of Service Animals and Passengers with Disabilities
Proving an animal is a qualified service animal can be tricky when it involves potentially revealing intimate details of a person’s disability. To protect the privacy of people with disabilities, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows airport and airline staff to ask ONLY the following two questions:
1) Is the service animal required because of a disability?
2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
To further verify that an animal is a qualified service animal, staff may also look for physical indicators such as the presence of a harness or tag, as well as direct observation of the animal’s behavior. Airlines are never required to accept snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, or spiders.
While another passenger’s allergies or fear of animals is not sufficient grounds to prohibit a service animal, airport and airline authorities may also prohibit service animals if they:
- Are too large or heavy to be accommodated in the cabin.
- Pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.
- Cause a significant disruption of cabin service.
- Are prohibited from entering a foreign country.
Rights and Responsibilities of Passengers with Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are similar to service animals, except these animals provide support and accessibility for passengers with a psychiatric condition that interferes with their ability to fly. These animals are trained to perform different types of tasks and fall under slightly different rules.
The main difference is that airlines may—and frequently do—require documentation from a licensed mental health professional from whom you have received care. The airline may also require that you notify them within 48 hours of the flight that you’ll be traveling with an emotional support animal.
Many airlines provide their own form template or ask that the document be issued on the mental health provider’s official letterhead. The document must be issued within the past year and include the following information:
- The health provider’s date and type of professional license.
- The jurisdiction or state in which their license was issued.
- A statement or indication that you have a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM);
- A statement or indication that the emotional support animal is needed as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activities at your destination.
More Information About Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
Airline Rights and Responsibilities: An animal that engages in disruptive behavior (barking, snarling, running around, jumping onto other passengers without being provoked) will not be accepted as a service animal. For flights scheduled for eight hours or longer, airlines may require documentation that your animal will not need to relieve itself or can do so in a sanitary way. An airline is not required to upgrade your ticket to accommodate your service animal.
Airport and Airplane Travel Guidelines: Every major U.S. airport should have at least one animal relief area for your service animal. On the plane, your animal must be permitted to accompany you in the space under the seat in front of you. Certain small animals may also be permitted to sit on your lap, if it can be done so safely. Your animal cannot block access to the aisle, emergency exit, or any space that must remain unobstructed for safety reasons.
International Travel: Not all countries permit service animals from other foreign countries. US carriers traveling to foreign countries are subject to the requirements of that country including service animals. Check to ensure whether your destination country permits your animal and what requirements may apply. Foreign carriers operating to and from the United States are only required to accept dogs.
ADA and Service Animal Laws: The legal standing of the rights and responsibilities for service animals and emotional support animals are also slightly different. Some of the rules that apply to service animals and dogs in particular are enshrined in the American with Disabilities Act. The rules for emotional support animals are dictated by the ACAA and issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.