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In January 2018, United Airlines refused to allow a passenger to bring a peacock on board a flight departing from Newark-Liberty International Airport as an emotional support animal. This, along with a series of other aircraft pet incidents — including the alleged mauling of a child by a pit bull on an Alaska Airlines flight — brought about a round of new regulations defining if and what type of pets can fly in airline cabins.
More than 2 million pets and other live animals are transported by air every year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. There are four different categories of traveling pets: those whose owners pay to carry them in the cabin; those who are disabled and need trained guide dogs to help them; those with emotional support animals; and those who check their pets in the cargo section of the plane.
We focus on rules under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which covers pets on airplanes. We outline the differences between emotional support and service animals and share policies for carry-on pets at the top U.S. airlines.
In this article
- Service dogs vs. emotional support animals
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Southwest Airlines
- United Airlines
- The bottom line
Service dogs vs. emotional support animals
Service animals are defined as dogs trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities; they are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Examples of those tasks include guiding people who are blind or deaf, pulling a wheelchair or alerting and protecting a person who is prone to having seizures.
The ACAA defines emotional support animals as “any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.” The act prohibits discrimination based on disability in air travel, and includes allowing trained service dogs and emotional support animals on board flights for free.
Emotional support animals have come into the spotlight in the past few years as airlines have struggled with creating proper policies. U.S. carriers flew 751,000 emotional support animals in 2017, up almost 60% year over year, according to a survey conducted by the industry group Airlines for America (A4A).
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has a more narrow view of what’s considered a service animal. ADA defines it as dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” ADA also includes accepting psychiatric support dogs, but not emotional support animals.
To that end, A4A and the International Air Transport Association submitted a docket in July 2018 to the U.S. Department of Transportation urging it to align with ADA when it comes to support animals in airplane cabins.
While airline carriers can’t ban them under ACAA, they are enacting stricter policies designed to weed out those who may be misrepresenting their pets to avoid paying the fees to carry them. Below, we review the carry-on pet policies at the top six U.S. airlines.
Fees. For those who want to bring their non-support pet on a flight, Alaska charges $100 each way. Only dogs, cats, rabbits and household birds are allowed on board, with space subject to availability. Alaska Airlines does accept most small domesticated pets in the belly of its planes for $100 each way. They include cats, dogs, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, household birds, non-poisonous reptiles, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits and tropical fish. Larger animals must be shipped via Pet ConnectTM Animal Travel.
Service animals. The airline recognizes cats, dogs and miniature horses as trained service animals. It also accepts trained psychiatric service animals. Upon arrival at the airport, you are required to advise a customer service agent that you’re traveling with a service animal to ensure it is accounted for on board a flight.
Emotional support animals. Only cats and dogs are accepted as emotional support animals. Travelers must provide Alaska Airlines the following completed documentation at least 48 hours before departure: an animal health advisory, along with mental health and animal behavior forms that must be carried during your flight. The airline also strongly recommends that guests bring a certified copy of the animal’s health certificate from their veterinarian.
Dogs and cats must be at least eight weeks old and fully weaned. The pet must stay in its container (including head and tail) with the door/flap secured at all times in the boarding area (during boarding and deplaning), Alaska Lounge, and while on board the aircraft. They must be stowed under the seat during taxi, take-off and landing.
Baggage allowance. A pet carrier counts toward your carry-on bag allotment. That means you can either bring a pet carrier and a personal item, or a pet carrier and a standard size carry-on bag, so plan accordingly.
Reserve space. For travel on Alaska Airlines and subsidiaries PenAir and Ravn Alaska, call Alaska Airlines reservations at 800-252-7522 to check availability and to make arrangements.
Fees. Non-service pet fees are $125 for carry-on pets within and between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean (based on a specific country’s entry policy). Pets are required to stay in their kennels underneath aircraft seats.
When it comes to pets checked in the cargo hold of the plane, it costs $200 per kennel ($150 for Brazil) for animals up to 100 lbs. Capacity is limited to two checked pets, so contact reservations and check in at the ticket counter before traveling.
Service animals. The animal must be a cat, dog or trained miniature horse that’s at least four months old. It must be, clean, well-behaved and able to fit at your feet, under the seat or in your lap (lap animals must be smaller than a two-year-old child).
Emotional support animals. Emotional support and psychiatric service animals must be trained to behave properly in public and won’t be permitted in the cabin if they display any form of disruptive behavior that can’t be corrected or controlled. If it happens during the flight and isn’t controlled, the animal will be considered a pet and all requirements and applicable fees will apply. If the animal is in a kennel, it must fit under the seat in front of you with the animal in it.
Baggage allowance. You can bring one kennel as a carry-on bag if you pay the carry-on pet fee and your pet stays in the kennel and under the seat in front of you the entire flight.
Reserve space. You must call American Airlines at 800-433-7300 to check pet space availability on your flight before booking. To travel with an emotional support/psychiatric service animal in the cabin, you must submit the following required forms via fax (817-967-4715) to the Special Assistance Desk at least 48 hours before your flight: medical/mental health professional form; veterinary health form, or vaccination record with current rabies vaccination information; and a confirmation of animal behavior form.
Delta Air Lines
Fees. Small dogs, cats and household birds can travel in the cabin for a one-way fee, collected at check-in. The cost is $125 each way for flights in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada; it’s $200 for U.S. Virgin Islands and international flights; and $75 to Brazil. Pets are not permitted to travel in the cabin for flights to Hawaii. Larger pets are required to be shipped via Delta Cargo. Prices are based on the size of the animal and the destination.
Service animals. Service and support animals must be seated in the floor space below a passenger’s seat or seated in their lap and must not exceed the footprint of the seat. You may be re-accommodated if your animal encroaches on other passengers or extends into aisles, since it violates Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Emotional support animals. Those traveling with emotional support or psychiatric service animals must upload the required documentation and submit it at least 48 hours before a flight. For questions, call 404-209-3434. Advanced notice is encouraged, but not required for customers traveling with trained service animals.
Delta doesn’t allow the following as service or support animals, although they can fly as cargo:
- Sugar gliders
- Non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game birds and birds of prey)
- Animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor
- Animals with tusks, horns or hooves
Your pet may be rejected if it’s caught growling, jumping on passengers, relieving themselves in the gate area or cabin, barking excessively, not responding to a handler’s needs or eating off seat back tray tables.
Baggage allowance. Pets must be able to fit in a small, ventilated carrier that fits under the seat in front of you. Your pet counts as your personal item, part of your carry-on luggage. For travel to or from the destinations below — with the exception of service animals — pets must travel as cargo and are not permitted in the cabin. For travel to Hawaii, pets are not permitted to travel in the cabin and other restrictions may apply.
Reserve space. Pets are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Call Delta in advance at 800-221-1212 to arrange to bring your pet on board. Delta limits the number of total pets per flight: two for domestic first class including Canada, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam; up to four on main cabin international flights, but not in business or first class (excluding service and emotional support animals).
Fees. It costs $125 each way for non-service pets in the cabin, plus you earn 300 JetBlue True Blue loyalty points for each flight. Book your pet early, since the airline only allows four per flight, on a first-come, first-served basis. JetBlue does not ship live animals as cargo or in the bellies of any aircraft.
Service animals. JetBlue only accepts dogs, cats, and miniature horses as emotional support and psychiatric service animals. Add the animal to your reservation when booking online or call 800-JETBLUE (538-2583) within 48 hours of travel.
Emotional support animals. Customers traveling with emotional service animals are required to download the following: medical/mental health professional’s form; veterinary health form; and confirmation of animal behavior, then submit those forms through this link. You must also bring these documents when you travel.
The animal’s behavior will be checked at the airport to ensure that safety requirements are met before being approved for travel. JetBlue does not accept the following as service animals:
- Animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor
- Animals who appear to be in poor health
- Animals with tusks
- Sugar gliders
Baggage allowance. Non-service pets must stay inside their closed/zipped up carrier while at the airport and in the aircraft for the entire flight. You must bring your pet’s vaccination and documentation, along with identification tags and vet certificate, for international travel, including Puerto Rico.
Reserve space. The JetPaws™ Pet Program offers the tips and tools pets and owners need for a smooth trip. The airline accepts small cats and dogs — the combined weight of the pet and carrier can’t be more than 20 pounds — in the aircraft cabin on domestic and international flights (except for those to/from Jamaica, Barbados, Saint Lucia, Cayman Islands, Trinidad and Tobago and interline/codeshare bookings). Book pets online at jetblue.com or by calling 800-JETBLUE (538-2583).
Fees. Travelers will need to go to the ticket counter and pay a non-support pet fee of $95 each way before going through airport security. Southwest only accepts small cats and dogs in carriers that are stowed under a customer’s seat. Pets can’t be checked as cargo on Southwest flights.
Service animals. In order to accept an animal as a trained service animal, a ticket or gate agent must determine that the passenger has a disability and that the animal is trained. If the disability is unclear, employees may ask questions to determine whether an animal is a trained service animal, emotional support animal, or eligible to be accepted as a pet.
Emotional support animals. those traveling with an emotional support animal must provide current documentation on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor that explains:
- The mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders;
- The need for an emotional support dog or cat as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the passenger’s destination;
- That the person providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and the passenger is under his or her professional care; and
- The date and type of mental health professional’s or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued.
The emotional support animal must be either a dog or a cat and only one per person, per flight is allowed. The animal must be in a carrier that can be stowed under the seat in front of the customer or on a leash at all times while in the airport and on board the aircraft.
Service and emotional support animals must be trained to behave appropriately in public and controlled by the handler at all times. An animal that engages in disruptive behavior — including scratching, excessive whining or barking, growling, biting, lunging and urinating or defecating in the cabin or gate area — may be denied boarding.
Southwest also accepts law enforcement service dogs trained in explosives or drug detection, along with search-and-rescue dogs for free when accompanied by their respective handlers on official business. A letter must be presented on the mission, along with a copy of the animal’s certification.
Baggage allowance. A pet carrier will count either as a passenger’s carry-on bag or personal item.
Reserve space. Call 800-435-9792 to make a reservation for a non-support carry-on pet. Up to six pets per flight will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fees. Eligible non-service pets cost $125 each way, plus an additional $125 service charge for each stopover of more than four hours within the U.S. or more than 24 hours outside of the U.S. You’ll need to see an agent at check-in to receive a pet tag. Puppies and kittens must be at least four months old to travel. The airline allows domesticated cats, dogs, rabbits and household birds (excluding cockatoos) to travel as a carry-on pet on most flights within the U.S.
United’s PetSafe® program manages cargo travel for cats and dogs flying to approximately 300 destinations. Rates are determined by the total weight of the animal and crate combined. And MileagePlus® members earn 500 miles for each PetSafe shipment within the U.S. and 1,000 miles for all other shipments.
Service animals. Trained service animals must sit in the floor space in front of the customer’s assigned seat and cannot be in the aisle. The animal must sit at the customer’s feet without protruding into the aisle or other areas that must remain unobstructed to comply with safety regulations.
Emotional support animals. Emotional support and psychiatric service animals are accepted if certain information and documentation is provided within 48 hours of travel on this secure portal. In addition to a letter from a licensed medical/mental health professional, United requires travelers 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 appropriately in a public setting. Support and psychiatric service animals are not allowed on flights of eight hours or more.
A customer can travel with one emotional support animal, which can’t weigh more than 65 pounds and may only be a cat or dog. Under United’s Passenger Confirmation of Liability and Emotional Support/Psychiatric Service Animal Behavior Form, the owner must confirm that the animal takes direction upon command, will remain under control at all times and has been trained to behave properly in a public setting.
Baggage allowance. An in-cabin non-service pet may be carried in addition to a carry-on bag. The animal is expected to stay in its kennel while in the airport and on board the aircraft, and the kennel must remain in the floor space below your seat.
Reserve space. You must make reservations for pet travel at united.com. In-cabin travel for pets is booked on a space-available basis. Two pets per flight are allowed in United’s premium cabins, except for the Boeing 757, 767, 777 or 787 aircraft, due to limited under seat storage space. In-cabin pets cannot be seated in a Premium Plus seat because the footrest limits the storage space under the seats.
Four pets per flight are allowed in United economy on all United flights. Those traveling with an in-cabin pet in United economy on a Boeing 757-200 will need to sit at a window seat due to limited storage space under aisle and middle seats.
Additional documentation may be required for an animal traveling to an international destination, Hawaii and other locations. Call the United Accessibility Desk at 800-228-2744 with questions about the process or if you are booking a flight within 48 hours of departure.
The bottom line
Carriers continue to support disabled passengers who have a legitimate need to travel with a trained service animal while tightening the rules for emotional support animals.
As travelers have become bolder about what they consider emotional support animals — including fish, kangaroos, possums, parrots, hamsters, ducks, turkeys, ferrets, lizards, snakes and turtles — the airlines have been pushing back. Passengers are being accused of using ACAA as a shield from in-cabin pet fees and bringing animals that aren’t trained and don’t really offer true support.
While carriers can’t ban travelers from bringing their service and emotional support animals aboard flights, they are putting in regulations that make it harder for those who only want to avoid paying pet fees. The goal is to allow those who really need emotional support animals under ACAA while weeding out others who are just avoiding airline-imposed pet fees.