Furry Friends

Airline Bans on Service Animals

In recent years, we have seen more service animals in public places as the category expanded to include assistance for the hearing impaired, epilepsy sufferers, people confined to wheelchairs, among others.  Now, in addition to service dogs, we see people with emotional support animals.  What is the difference?  Service animals are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and have legal rights conferred by statute.  Only dogs and miniature horses can qualify as service animals under the ADA, and they must undergo special training.  A service animal is trained to perform specific tasks to assist a disabled owner to live a more normal life.

Emotional support animals do not have any protection under the ADA. Their purpose is help with emotional and psychiatric disorders by providing comfort and support.  Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and panic attacks are some of the conditions where emotional support animals are helpful.  Many different species can be emotional support animals.  These animals are protected under the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.  However, recent abuses of the law have prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact new rules limiting the right to take emotional support animals on commercial flights. Both service animals and support animals fly free of charge.  Service dogs are not required to be confined in pet carriers.

Incidents That Led Up to the New Restrictions.

After a number of unfortunate incidents on commercial flights, the airlines, with the support of the DOT, have started to limit the types of support animals they allow to travel with their owners and the ages of the animals.  One woman became irate and police were called when Frontier Airlines refused to allow the woman to bring her emotional support squirrel on the flight.

Another incident made the news when a Michigan man sat in dog feces on a Delta flight.  The man said he was already seated before he realized the seat and surrounding floor were covered in mushy dog poop.  The flight attendant handed him a bunch of paper towels and expected him to clean the mess himself.  Why wasn’t the plane cleaned before the flight?  That situation should have been prevented by airline staff.  People have been boarding planes with all sorts of emotional support animals, including a pig, a turkey, and a duck.  How do you keep a duck from quacking during a flight?  These animals are not specially trained, and some species do not respond to training efforts. 

In January of last year, United Airlines balked at allowing an emotional support peacock on board.  United repeatedly told the customer the peacock would not be able to fly, but she brought the bird to the airport despite the warnings.  Customers have tried to bring all sorts of animals into the passenger cabin as emotional support animals. Travelers complain of animal allergies, noisy animals, dirty cabins, and even animal bites from support animals. Now, the airlines, responding to the complaints of other passengers and harried flight attendants, are setting limits.

Limits Set by Airlines in Recent Months

Both United Airlines and Delta have banned emotional support puppies and kittens under four months of age.  They also will ban all emotional support animals on long flights, mainly flights over eight hours.  Why?  Young puppies and kittens may not be house broken and may soil the cabin during flight.  Also, emotional support animals do not receive the disciplined training required of a service dog.  They may react badly to being confined in an airplane cabin for long periods.  There have been incidents of support animals becoming aggressive and biting other passengers or flight attendants.

According to Delta Airlines, the number of people flying with service animals has increased 150% since 2015.  Delta and United now require passengers with service animals to show proof of the animal’s status 48 hours before boarding the plane.  Fliers now have to sign behavioral guideline documents for emotional support animals.  The form requires that animals be kept on a leash or harnessed throughout the flight.  Animals who exhibit aggressive behavior are banned from flying as well as those exhibiting excessive whining or barking. If your animal has an “accident” while in the gate area, it will not be allowed on the plane.  Additionally, emotional support animals cannot fly without their owner having a letter from a physician or licensed mental health professional certifying the need for a comfort animal.

Specific Airline Policies.

American Airlines

American Airlines also requires a veterinarian’s certificate verifying the animal’s health in addition to a doctor’s letter for the owner. Animals must be a minimum of 10 weeks old for domestic travel, 15 weeks for travel to Europe, and 16 weeks for traveling to the U.S. from another country.  American is now restricting the type of animal it is willing to accept as an emotional support animal.  Insects, spiders, goats, ferrets, hedgehogs, hawks and chickens are now banned.  I must say the notion that a spider can give emotional support is a real head scratcher.  Other than Spiderman himself, who would derive comfort from a spider?

Delta Airlines

Delta has the same age restrictions as United and American.  The airline is also banning the following animals from flying as emotional support animals:  ferrets, hedgehogs, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, amphibians, goats, non-household birds, animals with tusks or hooves, and any animal that is dirty or has a strong odor.


Frontier Airlines has similar policies to American and Delta.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest requires customers to have a letter from a licensed physician or licensed mental health care professional stating the customer has an emotional or mental disability recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and that the individual needs the animal for air travel or for activities at the destination.  Under Southwest’s policy, a simple doctor letter is not enough.  It must reference the DSM, and the mental health care provider must be licensed.  Southwest allows only dogs and cats in the cabin as emotional support animals.  It does not have specific dog breed specifications, but the airline reserves the right to deny boarding to any disruptive animal.

Spirit Airlines

The emotional support animal must be at least 8 weeks old.  Spirit also requires a letter from a licensed physician or mental health professional.  A veterinarian’s certificate is also required.  The animals banned on Spirit are rodents, reptiles, snakes, sugar gliders and ferrets.

United Airlines

United, along with Delta, was among the first to set limits on emotional support animals.  As mentioned earlier, puppies and kittens must be at least 4 months of age, and no emotional support animals are permitted on flights lasting longer than eight hours.  Only dogs and cats will be accepted as emotional support animals.  The airline accepts dogs, cats, and miniature horses as service animals even though cats are not covered by the ADA.







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