The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), with its stringent rules on accommodating service dogs in public places without requiring proof of disability, doesn’t apply on airplanes. However, the less-known Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits airlines from discriminating against travelers with physical or mental impairments. That means they can bring their assistance animals with them on planes for free without the other restrictions for flying with pets. This is an important right for people with disabilities who need their trained service dogs to travel like anyone else. But with rising numbers of untrained emotional support animals on planes, disputes have been rising as well.
Under the ACAA and its accompanying regulations, airlines must accept the believable “verbal assurances” of travelers with disabilities that their animal companions are service animals. If any segment of the flight is scheduled to take at least eight hours, the passenger may need to provide documentation that the animal won’t need to relieve itself on the plane or can do so in a way that doesn’t create a health or sanitation problem. (14 C.F.R. § 382.117(a), (d).)
In the case of psychiatric service dogs and emotional support animals, airlines may also require a recent, signed certification from a licensed mental health professional that the passenger:
(14 C.F.R. § 382.117(e).)
Unlike the ADA, the ACAA doesn’t limit its service-animal protections to dogs. Domestic airlines must allow most species of assistance animals—including pigs and monkeys, but not reptiles, rats, or tarantulas—unless they:
Foreign carriers don’t have to allow service animals other than dogs. If any airline doesn’t accept an animal, it must give the passenger a written explanation of the reason. (14 C.F.R. § 382.117(f), (g).)
True service dogs have extensive training to behave calmly in public and perform specific tasks related to their owners’ physical or psychiatric disabilities. In contrast, emotional support animals help their owners simply by providing comfort, companionship, and a calming presence. They don’t need to have any training at all, and they may get upset in the crowded space of an airplane. (Don’t we all?) Also, it’s easy to forge the documentation for an emotional support animal or get it from unscrupulous websites—for a fee, of course.
Given the relatively lax standards for emotional support animals, travelers are increasingly using this designation to skirt the cost and restrictions on flying with pets. This has led to more conflicts on flights, from attacks on other passengers or trained service animals to excessive barking. When Delta Air Lines announced in 2018 that it was tightening requirements for emotional support and psychiatric service animals on board, the company said that “incidents” with these animals (like biting or defecating on the planes) had nearly doubled in the previous two years.
In addition to tightening the documentation requirements, some airlines have added more restrictions on the species of emotional support animals allowed on board. Southwest Airlines changed its policies in September 2018 to limit passengers to one support dog or cat. Other airlines (including United, American, and JetBlue) are also changing their rules on support animals, so be sure to check with the airline well before you plan to fly.
As allowed under the ACAA regulations, most airlines require that passengers who are travelling with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal give 48 hours’ advance notice and check in at least an hour before the flight leaves. When passengers don’t do that, airlines should try to accommodate them anyway, as long as they can do so without delaying the flight. (14 C.F.R. § 382.27.)