Can I Take My Service or Emotional Support Animal on a Plane?

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 allows people to travel with their service or emotional support animal, provided they follow certain rules.

In 1986, Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). This Act allowed passengers with disabilities to avoid discrimination when traveling by air.

Basically, the rules in the ACAA state that airlines can’t refuse travel to a passenger with disabilities, and that airplanes must be accessible to all individuals regardless of their bodily ability.

But, how does this law apply to service and support animals for people with special needs? Are they also included in the Air Carrier Access Act’s rules for disabled passengers?

In this article, we’ll cover the rules concerning whether or not you can bring a service or emotional support animal onto a plane.

Airline Rules for Normal Pets

Dogs traveling by airplane. Boxes with live animals at the airport.

First let’s talk about the rules for pets on planes. These can vary widely by airline, but generally go as follows:

  • Airlines usually allow small dogs or cats in the cabin, but they must be able to fit in a carrier that is stowed under the seat.
  • If you have a larger dog, the airline will ask you to transport your pet in the cargo area.
  • There are also limits in weight and number of carry-on pets on a plane.
  • There is a fee for a carry-on pet.

Airline Rules for Service and Support Animals

dog in airport terminal on vacation

What if your animal is not “just” a pet? Does the ACAA require airlines to allow service and emotional support animals onto a flight?

The answer is yes, but the ACAA gives airlines discretion in determining what qualifies as a service animal. Your service or support animal can fly with you free of charge. However, this is only if you can show evidence that your animal is medically necessary for your comfort on the flight.

Since both airlines and the ACAA treat them differently, we’ll outline the rules for service and support animals in separate sections.

Rules for Service Animals

The U.S. Department of Transportation defines a service animal as any animal that is specifically trained to perform a service for a qualified person with a disability. 

Most airlines apply some basic requirements to people who want to bring their service animal with them on a plane:

  • Service animals on a plane should be either cats or dogs. Airlines will only consider other types of animals on a case-by-case basis.
  • The airline will ask for specific evidence that proves the cat or dog is a service animal. The passenger can provide this in a few different ways:
    • Believable assurances from the passenger about the service the animal provides for them.
    • A harness or tags on the animal stating that they are a service dog.
    • Documentation from a medical professional stating that the passenger needs the services of the animal.
    • Demonstration that the animal is well-trained.

Rules for Emotional Support Animals

If you have an animal that provides emotional support or a psychiatric service, the requirements are similar to those for a service animal.

However, the airline will be more likely to require documentation from a medical professional for a support animal.

Airline employees can legally ask you to provide documentation and/or 48 hours’ notice of your support animal boarding the plane. The documentation that you show must not be older than 1 year from the date of your flight.

Acceptable documentation includes the following information:

  • Description of a mental or emotional disability that is recognized in the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). These disabilities can include depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.
  • Explanation of why you need your support animal to travel.
  • Introduction of the licensed medical professional that is providing the information and their statement that the passenger is under their care.
  • Details (with dates) on the medical professional’s license and jurisdiction of care.

It’s also a good idea to bring documentation of your animal’s current immunization and vet records.

Exceptions

small dog pomaranian spitz in a travel bag on board of plane

Even if you have documentation for your service or support animal, there are still some deal-breakers that can prohibit your animal from flying with you.

Size – If an animal is too large or too heavy to travel in the airplane safely, the airline can refuse to allow it, even if you have proper documentation.

Behavior – Most service animals are trained to behave well, even in difficult situations. Small spaces, large crowds, and loud noises should not bother a trained service animal.

However, if your service or support animal is disruptive, aggressive, or unsanitary, the airline can refuse to allow it on the plane.

Species – Airlines don’t have to accept rodents, reptiles, spiders, or ferrets on a plane, regardless of their relationship to the passenger.

Destination – There are some international destinations that refuse entry to dogs from other countries. If you are traveling somewhere that doesn’t allow dogs to go through customs, the airline won’t allow your service dog on the plane.

Long Flights – If your flight is more than 8 hours, the airline can require proof that your animal can go that long without relieving himself.

Remember, airlines are ultimately responsible if your animal causes harm or discomfort to other passengers. An airline shouldn’t sacrifice the safety of other passengers to accommodate a service animal.

You must be able to meet the minimum requirements for size and behavior if you want to fly with your service or support animal.

Think of Both Your Animal and Other Passengers

When you consider flying with your service or support animal, remember that they must be trained, and they must be comfortable in unusual situations.

Trying to sneak an untrained dog onto your flight to avoid putting them in cargo or a pet charge is never a good idea. For example:

  • For an untrained pet, traveling on a plane can be terrifying. Going through security, changes in air pressure, crowded spaces, and loud noises can cause even calm and friendly animals to become agitated and aggressive. Your otherwise friendly dog could easily become frightened and attack a person or a trained service animal.
  • Most airlines have limits on the number of animals that can be on a plane. If you sneak your pet on as a support animal, you may be taking that spot from someone who needs their service animal for a disability.
  • Air travel can already be uncomfortable due to long wait times, close quarters, and a variety of other factors. The unexpected presence of an animal on an airplane may cause distress and severe allergic reactions in other travelers.
  • Recent news of attempts to pass off a pet as a service or support animal have made other passengers and airlines suspicious of these important animals. Don’t be one of those people who ruins it for everyone else.

Conclusion

Aviation cat flying in an airplane looking out the porthole overlooking the blue sky wing. Silhouette of cat in the airplane window

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 was an important step in making air travel available to people with disabilities. Allowing people to travel with their service or support animal is an important part of passengers’ rights.

However, passengers will have to provide evidence that their animal provides a necessary service for a disability, either physical or emotional.

You must also be certain that your animal is trained to behave well in a small, crowded space. Ultimately, it’s the airline’s responsibility to honor the rights of disabled passengers, while ensuring the safety of the others on the plane.

If you still aren’t sure about how the rules relate to your specific case, call the airline and ask. In a similar fashion, if you feel you were treated unfairly because of your need for a service or support animal, you should contact an experienced attorney who can help you seek justice in your case.

Was this post helpful?

Schedule a consultation