Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of travel? Exotic locations, relaxing vacations, or even business trips that get you away from the office. Taking your emotional support animal or service dog along for the ride isn’t a question (they like getting away, too). However, when travel involves boarding a plane, a little work is required.
Everyone knows the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) provides legal protection for people with emotional support animals on planes. You’re allowed to bring your ESA into the cabin with you without paying any fees. And, of course, the ADA protects those with service dogs.
Unfortunately, starting in 2016, airlines saw an 84% increase in incidents involving animals during flights. Ranging from annoying (urinating in the cabin) to dangerous (the infamous 2017 incident where a man ended up attacked by the dog seated beside him, culminating in 28 stitches), imposter ESAs prompted airlines to crack down on animals. (A few rotten apples always spoil the barrel, right?)
Every airline has its requirements, and you should consult their websites for their specific guidelines. In general, though, expect to encounter the following when flying:
- If traveling with an ESA, you’ll need to submit your ESA letter and all other paperwork 48 hours in advance.
- Additional paperwork will likely include your companion’s vaccine records, a current health report, and a statement from your vet attesting to your companion’s behavior.
- If the airline staff observe any signs of aggression, jumping on staff or passengers, see your companion relieve themselves at the gate, or hear excessive barking, they reserve the right to refuse the animal to fly.
- Your ESA or service dog will have to remain in the floor space if they can’t safely occupy your lap (the airline makes that determination).
- Basically, you get the “footprint” space of your seat. A good idea is to request one of the bulkhead seats if you have a dog – you’ll get more room.
- Your companion isn’t allowed to sit on a seat.
- Your companion can’t extend into another passenger’s space or the aisle. This violates FAA regulations.
- Your companion is not allowed to eat off the seat tray. (You can still hand-feed them)
- The following animals are NOT accepted (ESA letter or not):
- Reptiles of any kind
- Sugar gliders
Now, if you’re traveling internationally, the rules are different. For instance, foreign airlines only accept dogs in the cabin. Again, check with your intended airline ahead of time.
If you’re heading to Hawaii (lucky!), there are special Rabies requirements that allow you to avoid quarantine. The blood tests, microchipping, and vaccine process need to start THREE TO SIX MONTHS before your flight, so plan accordingly.
Even if you use an online travel agency, it’s a good idea to follow up with a call to the airline. Speaking to the supervisor will answer all of your questions, alert the airline to your needs, and coordinate any possible seat changes. (Some airlines won’t allow you to sit in an exit row)
Preparing to Fly
Now that you have the rules under your belt, it’s time to plan for the flight. If your emotional support animal or service dog is a veteran of plane travel, then you’re all set.
What if this is their first trip, though? You CAN do some prep work to make things easier.
While simulating cabin pressure isn’t practical, you have other opportunities to set your companion up for success. Airports are crowded places, full of noise and activity. Service dogs receive training to handle such distractions, but emotional support animals don’t have that advantage. While you can’t legally take your ESA into public facilities, you can take them out for walks in public parks that allow animals. They’ll gain exposure to new stimuli. Make sure you use the same kennel, harness, or leash you plan to bring on the plane.
Back at home, set up chairs in rows similar to the plane. Create a cozy “cave” for your companion and encourage them to practice resting in their designated spot. You’re allowed to bring their kennel or blanket with you as part of their “luggage” without incurring a fee. It won’t get counted in your carry-ons, either. Extend the time you sit with them, so they get used to the position. If you can encourage friends or family to help you out and sit with you, all the better. You’ll desensitize your companion for the trip, and they won’t be as nervous when it comes time to settle on the plane.
For your part, keep in touch with the airline. Call a few times before your flight, just to make sure everything is in order. Write down the date, time, and person you speak with each time (you never know when you’ll need that information).
Day of the Flight
It sounds awful, but limit your service dog’s or emotional support animal’s food and water the day of the trip. You want to prevent the possibility of accidents in-flight.
If you don’t already have it on your phone, download the Where to Go app. This handy tool provides you with the location of service animal relief areas at all United States airports. (Make sure you take your companion for a potty break before you board the plane and as soon as you land)
You can keep dry kibble or treats with you on the flight for positive reinforcement, and ice cubes are a great way to keep your companion hydrated without overflowing their bladder.
Everyone loves arriving at the airport two hours early, right? Well, you need to consider coming an extra 30 minutes beyond that. Even though you submitted your paperwork already, bring additional copies with you. Finally, pack your patience. Ever heard how much screaming happens at airport counters and security checkpoints? Yeah, no one wants to contribute to that (plus, it doesn’t get anyone anywhere – well, maybe YouTube).
You DO have to pass through the metal detector. You’ll remove all collars and carry small companions through. Larger dogs receive a cue to sit, and you walk through, then you beckon your dog to come. Please note, while you’re allowed to pick up the leash, you CAN NOT touch your dog until the TSA agent tells you. If you do, you might have to undergo additional screening. This process can be challenging to explain to autistic children with service dogs, so preparation is key. (As is being smart and making sure to remove unnecessary metal from you and your companion)
We know that personnel are not allowed to ask about your disability, medical, or psychological condition. And, honestly, they know, too. However, they work in exhausting conditions (a lot of yelling), and they’re human. They forget. They aren’t trying to be insensitive. You can tactfully answer that your service dog or emotional support animal performs their intended task. You can smile and politely remind them they’re not allowed to ask that question. Or, if you don’t mind, you can answer the question. It’s up to you.
Causing a scene is what those with fake ESAs tend to do. You don’t want to be associated with them. Plus, you kind of want to get ON the plane. A little bit of patience and understanding goes a long way.
On the other hand, the general public DOESN’T have that knowledge. People know what they’ve heard on the news (that horrible peacock story). They might recognize a guide dog in a harness, but what about a diabetic alert dog? Probably not. Children, in particular, are likely to get upset. You have your emotional support animal while their beloved pet got checked at the front counter.
Again, it’s up to you on how much you’re willing to say. A simple, “my animal helps me if I get sick” is usually sufficient for even young children.
Aboard the plane, a courteous check-in with your seatmate on whether they have allergies shows you’re looking out for them. It gives you a chance to notify the flight attendant before take-off if seat changes are needed. (Because you don’t want to listen to a HUMAN whine the whole trip – that sound is DREADFUL)
Prep and Landing
Yes, people took advantage of the system and gave service dogs and emotional support animals a bad rep. Does that mean you should be afraid to take to the air? No, of course not. It just means a little more preparation. You have every right to bring your companion on the plane with you – the ACAA and ADA see to that.
So check your airline’s guidelines, install Where to Go on your phone, and give your ESA or service dog the benefit of a trial run.