The last few years, you may have noticed a rise in social media stories featuring strange animals on planes—Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are full of images of passengers flying with their special emotional support animal (ESA). It is certainly novel to see monkeys, ducks, horses and pigs 35,000 feet above the ground—and awfully cute too, which accounts for the viral speed at which these stories travel. You've probably seen a few ESA's and service dogs at the airport, yourself; many with a special service dog vest.
People flying with all manner of emotional support animal has simply surged in recent years—though it's still far more common to see an emotional support cat or emotional support dog. On American Airlines alone, the number of emotional support animals on their flights rose by 48% in one year alone from 2016 to 2017. That's a massive increase. In total they accommodated 155,790 emotional support animals.
It makes sense, since the more these stories go viral and the more people see images of animals flying, the more likely they are to want to fly with their animal too.
Unfortunately (or not, depending on your point of view), those days are over. Airlines are actively seeking to ban passengers from bringing just any emotional support animal aboard planes. They feel that people are taking advantage of the current laws which let an emotional support animal fly for free—a great deal considering the alternative: checking a pet can be rather costly—up to 100 dollars or more each way.
Plus, an emotional support dog or other animal is allowed more freedom on the plane—they can sit on your lap and don't have to be kept in a cage at your feet, as is required for a checked pet. Of course, that also limits the size of your animal—many an emotional support dog would simply be too big to fit at your feet and would need to be checked below the plane. That is, understandably, not something many people feel comfortable with.
People like flying with their emotional support animal because having their presence can significantly reduce anxiety during a stressful travel and flying experience. But now, if you want to fly with an emotional support animal, you're better off with an emotional support cat or an emotional support dog.
In August 2019 the Department of Transportation ruled that service animals could include cats, dogs and miniature horses, while emotional support animals would be allowed at the discretion of the airline. And these laws may soon be tightening up even more to include only a trained emotional support dog. (Service animals, as those mentioned above, will still be allowed with proper documentation).
This isn't entirely new—many individual airlines had already cracked down on what type of animal could be allowed onboard as an emotional support animal. Rodents, for example, are never allowed on board the plane, emotional support animal or not, as was evidenced by the frustrating story of the woman who showed up with an emotional support squirrel and had to be removed from the plane by police officers, or, more tragically, the girl who flushed her emotional support hamster down the toilet after being denied entry with him.
While generally an emotional support dog or emotional support cat is acceptable, in some cases, even the breed of dog permitted as an emotional support dog can determine eligibility. Delta, for example, no longer allows pit bulls, after multiple attendants and passengers were attacked.
Indeed, the Association of Flight Attendants, a flight attendant union with over 50,000 members, has been a strong force in the fight to change the law, as numerous flight attendants have been injured by untrained emotional support dogs. They say that the excessive number of animals allowed on planes threatens "the safety and health of passengers and crews in recent years while this practice skyrocketed."
Besides animal attacks, an emotional support animal can also put passengers with allergies and asthma at risk. Also, if an animal relieves itself on the plane, an event which is not unheard of, the airplane's high level of sanitation requirements are at risk—not to mention the extra effort flight attendants must do to clean and sanitize, sometimes delaying the subsequent flight. Furthermore, in an emergency an untrained emotional support animal can pose an impediment to the safety and evacuation of passengers.
Critics of the decision say that airlines oppose animals because they've reduced space in cabins so drastically that there is no room for an emotional support animal (and hardly room for passengers!). They voice concern over the people who will no longer be able to fly with their emotional support animal.
While we're still waiting to hear the final verdict on whether any emotional support animal will be allowed in the main cabin, those with a service animal—different from an emotional support animal in that these animals have been trained to help disabled owners perform certain tasks—will still be able to fly with their helper. An emotional support cat or emotional support dog would still be allowed to travel in cargo areas.
Currently, an emotional support dog or emotional support cat are generally more acceptable than other animals, however it depends on a case by case basis and you'll need to prove the animal is trained—and won't attack anyone! Until an official law is passed, every airline is handling the emotional support animal situation a little differently.
For example, the American Airlines website states:
Cats and dogs (trained miniature horse may be permitted as a service animal) are generally acceptable as service and support animals; any other animals must comply with the US Department of Transportation requirements for health and safety including documentation of the animal's up to date vaccination records and may not cause significant cabin disruption
In the event that your emotional support animal is too big or heavy to safely be accommodated, American Airlines suggests these alternatives:
As the last option indicates, even if the days of flying your emotional support animal for free and in the cabin are over, you will still have the option of checking your emotional support dog, emotional support cat or other animal in through other available, albeit more conventional, means.