Do You Need Emotional Support at 30,000 Feet?


By Robert McGarvey


First there was the peacock – a purported emotional support animal rejected by United Airlines.  Then there was the emotional support hamster, supposedly flushed down the toilet at the direction of Spirit Airlines crew.  

Question: what gives with all the “emotional support” animals?

Question: Do they belong on flights?

Somehow – suddenly – this topic has become one of travel’s hottest buttons. There are many who say the animals have no place on the plane. There are others who insist depriving them of their animal is cruelty.

Heated words get tossed around.

Sometimes passengers loudly squabble and punches are threatened.  

Where do you stand?

Personally, I can’t see a business traveler traveling with an emotional support animal – if I’m wrong about that, tell me in the comments – but we are all nonetheless impacted by this.

Know this: emotional support animals are not protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), landmark legislation signed into law by George H. Bush. Service animals are but service animals – dogs primarily – “must be trained to take a specific action when needed to assist the person with a disability. For example, a person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar reaches high or low levels. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication. Or, a person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.”

The US Justice Department specifically pointed out that emotional support animals are not service animals. “Because they have not been trained to perform a specific job or task, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

It added: “some State or local governments have laws that allow people to take emotional support animals into public places.  You may check with your State and local government agencies to find out about these laws.”

The flap on airlines is not about service dogs – they have a clearcut right to accompany their owners aboard –  it’s about emotional support animals, where, a kind of wild west rules and just about anything can be claimed to be an emotional support beast.  

Third question: do you want to bring Rover on your next flight?  Dress the part. Amazon sells a nifty Emotional Support Dog Harness for $32.95. It even comes in XL; go ahead, bring that mastiff!

Up until now, it has been relatively easy to bring an emotional support animal on board. That is changing.  Effective March 1, United, for instance, will require documentation for accepting on board an emotional support animal.  The carrier elaborated: “In addition to providing a letter from a licensed medical/mental health professional, customers will need to provide a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

United said it carried 76,000 emotional support animals in 2017. That was up a staggering 77% from the year before.

Delta requires that paperwork be filed 48 hours before flying with an emotional support animal.  

Pretty much all carriers can be expected to tighten the rules for emotional support animals.

Delta, by the way, has said it carries 700 emotional support animals daily and the beasts, it said, are wandering cabins, biting passengers, and relieving themselves wherever.

If you think some airplanes have become aviation equivalents of Noah’s ark, you’re not entirely wrong. Snakes, ducks, even ferrets have been brought aboard as “emotional support” animals. Squirrels and rats, too.

Airlines had been hoping the federal government would step in and regulate emotional support animals but that isn’t happening. A federal ACCESS Advisory Committee has been unable to agree on rules governing emotional support animals.  The Dept. of Transportation has said it intends to draft its own regulations but there’s no sign of them.  

So now the airlines are seeking to step into this void.

Given airline past behavior it is impossible to see any of this going smoothly, or even rationally.  That’s just not how they work.

If you want to bring an emotional support animal on board, be sure to have your paperwork in order and talk early and often with the carrier before takeoff. Rules are in flux. Don’t get caught in the middle.

If you are on the plane to do business and the idea of sharing your row with a python makes you nervous, speak up. Tell the flight attendant.  Tell the python’s owner.  Say Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer

But, right now, probably nobody is going to be entirely happy when it comes to emotional support animals. Not those who want to bring them or those who want them banned.  

I don’t blame you if you want emotional rescue – but don’t you know promises were never made to keep?


11 thoughts on “Do You Need Emotional Support at 30,000 Feet?”

  1. Service animals are a necessity. However, these emotional support animals can be a danger to those of us with animal allergies. Most of the service animals that I have seen are breeds that I am not allergic to. They are also extremely well behaved.

    I am a two-million miler. I never would have been able to do much of this career related travel if the cabin was full of dogs and cats. Last month, I saw a passenger who had two dogs that she was traveling with. Where are the airlines going to draw the line? For most of my 40 years of business flying , pets on flights were few and far between. Now, it is really getting out of hand!

  2. This is just part of the “what I want is more important” attitutde that is endorsed by the pc police. Can’t tell you how many times I have seen these animals relieve themselves on the airport floor.

  3. I think only trained service animals should be allowed to fly free and out of an enclosure. All other animals need to pay and need to be in an enclosure.

  4. I fly at least one round trip every week. In the past year I’ve seen an amazing uptick in the number of “emotional support” animals, most of those small dogs. A majority of the times they are obviously family pets. I can’t count the number of times I’ve either overheard or been directly told that the owners signed up their pet on some website as support animals to avoid the cost and rules regarding pet travel.

  5. I’m a retired airline pilot so I occasionally saw Service Animals on my flights. They were so well behaved that you never knew they were there unless you saw them. My wife is a 42 year flight attendant and still flying, so I hear about the problems with, so called, “Emotional Support” animals, and the “it’s all about me” owners, every time she gets home from her flights. It’s totally ridiculous what animals people are allowed to bring on the plane using emotional support as an excuse and then expect it can sit in the seat next to them or wander the isles. I’m all for “Service Animals” and the duties they’re trained for but “emotional support” from the others needs to come from the cargo bin, or from home.

  6. As Mr. McGarvey and the other commenters have pointed out, there is a huge, and very clear, division between trained, documented service animals and “emotional support animals”. The emotional support animal phenomenon has devolved into an absolute mess due to the scamming by devious pet owners seeking to evade the normal rules governing transport of pets. The airlines need to put a stop to this nonsense, and Delta’s hard line and very detailed and specific regulations provide an excellent model.

  7. Emotional support animal should be ban from passenger cabins! Massive thanks to Delta and United for taking major and positive action in curtailing the practice of some passengers to have their pets deceptively labeled as an emotional animal! This devious practice had definitely spiraled out of control during the last several years! I have had to suffer seating next to a passenger with an emotional animal as well as other occasions having an animal in the cabin! I can attest that other passengers were not pleased having an animal in the cabin. Such animals need to be caged or transported by other means. Airliners should be for passengers; not animals!

  8. Emotional support dogs are a joke and a scam! I especially feel sorry for physically challenged people who spend thousands of dollars to obtain a legitimate seeing eye dog or other specially-trained pet who can literally save a life or help their owner with medical or physical needs. The laws need to be changed, with online “emotional support” certification removed and these shams eliminated. Unless a pet has been specially trained to physically help its owner, is socialized, and potty trained, then it only becomes an unwelcome menace and risk on a flight or anywhere else!

  9. I am all for service animals.

    My father used to tell the story of when (back in the late 50s) he was traveling by bus and his seatmate had a white rat crawling up and down the man’s body. My father was not fond of rodents; he politely asked the man to keep the rat secured and away from him. The man ignored him. My father’s next words were “if this animal crawls on me, you can rest assured that I will grab it and throw it out the window! The rat made the rest of the trip inside a hand bag. Too bad we cannot open airplane windows.

  10. “…customers will need to provide a veterinary health form documenting the health and vaccination records for the animal as well as confirming that the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.”

    Adequate vaccination and basic health should have been required LONG ago… they ARE required for any animal traveling in the hold.

    But no veterinarian in the world would sign and date a confirmation that any pet has been so trained…. or imply that the pet would so behave. That puts the onus for good behaviour in a crowded aircraft or busy terminal on the vet, not the owner.

  11. I am against having emotional support animals, fish, reptiles, etc. in a jet cabin. However…to be fair…the BEST seatmate I’ve had in recent memory was a ~35 lb., un-crated pit bill terrier on an approximately 6 hour flight from JFK to LAX. Aside from getting pelted a few times by his wagging tail, he sat very quietly for most of the flight on the cabin floor and was as low maintenance as can be. Trust me, I haven’t been as lucky with some humans next to me over the past few years.

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