Emotional Support Animals and the Air Carrier Access Act

By: Prairie Conlon Updated: December 20, 2023

**Please note, as of January 11, 2021, under new regulations passed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the allowance of Emotional Support Animals onboard flights may vary from airline to airline. Please contact your airline of choice for their most up-to-date policies on Emotional Support Animals.

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 companion animals that provide benefits for a person with a mental health condition or emotional disorder. ESAs offer emotional support services to their owners but do not require any special training. 

They are expected to behave appropriately and not cause a disruption or they can be removed.

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.
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 and an emotional support animal 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 Air Carrier Access Act 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 on board, 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 Air Carrier Access Act 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

It’s recommending that ESA owners be practical and prepared when flying with an ESA. Some best practice recommendations are outlined below.

Contact a prospective airline at least 48 hours in advance, especially 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 you have your additional forms signed and your ESA letter is valid and 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 may be denied the rights.

If you have an ESA, 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.

Do you qualify for an ESA?

You can take our online screening to see if you qualify for an emotional support animal. It only takes a few minutes and is 100% free.

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