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Flying With an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? What You Need to Know!

October 29, 2019

Flying With an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)? What You Need to Know!

Emotional support animals come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as large and ostentatious as a miniature horse or full-sized peacock—or as unobtrusive as a well-trained guinea pig. Some offer support via timely yaps, others by quiet companionship. Some are friends to all, others take their work too seriously and choose to bother strangers.

After an American Airlines flight attendant was bitten by an emotional support dog on a flight from Dallas to North Carolina, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued clarifying guidance to airlines on how to handle service animals and the growing issue of emotional support animals. 

The new guidance seeks to clarify DOT's service animal rules from last year— covering species limitations, documentation requirements, containment, and advance check-in rules. Individual airlines will be required to review and adjust their policies in accordance with that guidance. 

As of last year, airlines can require paperwork in advance confirming animals have been vaccinated, are certified as emotional support animals, and that their owners take complete responsibility for them. Since August, airline employees have been able to exclude animals they consider to be a safety risk—though excluding entire dog or cat breeds is prohibited.

Highlights from DOT's clarifying guidance on emotional support animals:

  • Airlines cannot ban a specific breed or species of support animal, though they have some latitude to deny specific animals if they believe the animal could pose a threat. "Priority will be placed on ensuring that the most commonly recognized service animals (dogs, cats and miniature horses) are accepted for transport."
  • Airlines can require animal owners to provide documentation related to the animal's vaccination, and/or their training and behavior, to determine whether an animal poses a threat to the health or safety of others. They can also require documentation for flights over eight hours related to an animal's bathroom habits, however they cannot have outright bans on animals on long flights. 
  • Airlines can require animals within the cabin to be tethered.
  • Airlines can't require advance notice for those traveling with traditional service animals. 
  • Airlines can require lobby check-in for emotional support animals. 
  • Airlines can ask questions to determine a passenger's need for the animal, but must accept a medical form or letter that meets DOT's criteria as medical documentation of their need. 
  • Airlines can't restrict passengers from traveling with more than one emotional support animal and also can't limit the total number of animals on any flight. 
  • Airlines can deny animals considered to be too large or too heavy to be in the cabin and they can prohibit animals younger than four months. 

At Hitchman Fiduciaries, we are here to support you through all of life’s triumphs and challenges. If you have questions or need help navigating the complexities of traveling with an Emotional Support Animal (ESA), we can help! While we are not experts about each airline’s flight rules for your Emotional Support Animal, we can help get you information and can help point you in the right direction. If you have any questions at all or want to learn more, don't hesitate to call us today at 949.200.9712 and someone from our team will get in touch within 24 hours.

Author: Lee Ann Hitchman, CLPF/MBA and Licensed Professional Fiduciary