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Here’s What You Need to Know About Flying With Support or Service Animals

Small dog is sticking his head out of a pet carrier as he boards an airplane.
JodiJacobson/Getty Images


Recent reports of the difficulty some airline passengers face when trying to board a plane with service animals highlight how confusing the rules are for traveling with them.

“The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) requires airlines to allow service animals and emotional support animals to accompany their handlers in the cabin of the aircraft,” according to the ADA National Network.

The American Disabilities Act defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform specific tasks for people with disabilities” but acknowledges that its definition does not limit or affect the broader definition of “‘service animal’ under the Air Carrier Access Act.”

Today, many types of animals are recognized as service animals, including ducks, ferrets, snakes and pigs.

But most airlines have strict limits on the size and kind of animals allowed in passenger cabins to ensure everyone on board has a safe and comfortable flight.

For instance, Delta has a long list of animals it doesn’t permit to fly in passenger cabins, including spiders, goats, snakes or anything with hooves, tusks or horns.

When policies on prohibited animals collide with rules allowing people to fly with service or support animals, rules can get murky.

In a story that made international headlines, a woman recently tried to board a United Airlines flight with her emotional support peacock.

United representatives told NBC News the airline turned her away because the peacock, “did not meet guidelines for a number of reasons, including its weight and size.”

A similar situation came up in when a woman tried to take her emotional support hamster on a flight. She was denied travel because Spirit Airlines doesn’t permit rodents on its planes.

If you plan to travel with a service or emotional support animal, it’s important to make accommodation arrangements ahead of time because a missed flight can be expensive.

Detailed information on how to travel with a service or support animal can be found on the website of the airline you’re flying on, or by calling customer service.

Here’s a look at the airline rules and passenger responsibilities at five major airline companies.

1. American Airlines

“Service animals, including emotional support animals, are welcome at no charge if they meet the requirements. They must fit on your lap, at your feet, or under the seat, and cannot block the aisle,” according to the company’s website.

Passengers must provide a letter from their doctor confirming their medical diagnosis or provide an authorization form signed by a physician.

Contact American Airlines for disability assistance online or call reservation services at 800-433-7300 or 800-543-1586 (TDD).

2. Delta

“On a Delta flight, service and support animals are expected to be seated in the floor space below a passenger’s seat, or seated in a passenger’s lap. Service and support animals and their associated items travel for free. The size of the animal must not exceed the “footprint” of the passenger’s seat,” according to the company’s website.

Passengers must fill out a Trained Service Animal or an Emotional Support or Psychiatric Service Animal form and also provide veterinary health information about the animal.

Contact Delta for disability assistance at 404-209-3434.

3. Southwest Airlines

“Service and emotional support animals can be placed on the aircraft floor or on the Customer’s lap (provided the animal is no larger than a child under the age of two). Southwest Airlines does not allow the animals to be placed on an aircraft seat,” according to the company’s website.

Passengers traveling with trained service animals will not be asked to specify their disability, but airline employees may ask some questions about what specific assistance an animal provides.

Passengers traveling with an emotional support animal must provide a letter from their doctor confirming their medical diagnosis.

Contact Southwest Airlines for disability assistance at 1-800-435-9792.

4. Spirit Airlines

“Service and emotional support animals can be placed on the aircraft floor or (provided the animal is no larger than a lap child & there’s no inflatable seat belt) on the customer’s lap. No animals or any part of the animals can be placed on an aircraft seat at any time,” according to the company’s website.

Passengers traveling with trained service animals must provide a service animal identification card, written documentation of medical need, or “reasonable credible verbal assurance” from the person with the disability.

Passengers traveling with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal must provide a letter from their doctor confirming their medical diagnosis.

Contact Spirit Airlines for disability assistance at 801-401-2222.

5.  United Airlines

Trained service animals and emotional support animals “should sit in the floor space in front of the customer's assigned seat but cannot protrude into the aisles. Customers may elect to use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller animals,” according to the company’s website.

Trained service animals traveling to international destinations may require documentation.

Passengers traveling with an emotional support or psychiatric service animal must provide a letter from their doctor confirming their medical diagnosis.

Beginning March 1, 2018, passengers must also provide veterinary health information about the animal and confirm the animal has “appropriate behavioral training.”

Contact the United Accessibility Desk at 1-800-228-2744 or email [email protected].

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She once met a support goat and immediately fell in love.

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