Service Animal on a Flight? A Complete Guide

Last updated: January 5, 2017
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Airlines, despite the retreating leg room space and the stale peanuts, have made efforts to accommodate every passenger no matter their needs. This is especially true when it comes to service animals being brought on board the aircraft. While each has different rules in regards to the helpful pets, they all are very accepting of the needs of those with a disability.

Service animals and emotional support animals (we’ll get into the difference between the two later) are not just companions; they are necessary for everyday function. They can be their eyes, they can detect oncoming epilepsy, they can be their guide. Animals this crucial need to be with their human at all times, and that includes traveling. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) stipulates that all business which served the public must allow service animals, and are not allowed to charge extra or separate you from others.

How Do You Register Your Pet as a Service Animal?

In short, this process is not difficult and usually just requires filling out a couple of forms online. You’ll need your animal’s basic information; breed, birthdate, how you got it, plus a photo of the pet. Once everything is complete you’ll be sent all of the paperwork you need, including registration, tags and identification. You must also be able to provide proof that you are qualified to use a service animal under the ADA.

It has become increasingly prevalent that a lot of people are going through the application so that they can take their dogs on a plane or into restaurants when there is nothing medically wrong with them. Many regard this as a hinderance to those who actually have a disability and rely upon a service animal for everything they do. The penalty for falsely claiming a pet as a service animal can be up to $1,000 fine and a few days in jail.

What Is the Difference Between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal?

A service animal provides help for disabilities that are usually apparent to others. Impairments in sight, mobility and hearing are all things that a service animal can help their human counterpart live with on a daily basis. They can pick up things for them, they can guide them when walking on the street, they can even be their alarm clock in the morning. An animal can be trained to complete a wide array of tasks.

An emotional support animal (ESA) is there to provide comfort to their human for disabilities that may not be easily noticed by others. Conditions such as asperger’s, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress are just some of the things for which an (ESA) can provide assistance. They can keep track of medication schedules, warn of an oncoming episode or even encourage correctional behavior. They do not need to be trained in every-day tasks the same way a service animal might need to be, and there are some differences in requirements for the two when it comes to air travel, which we’ll have more on later.

What Happens at Airport Security with Your Service Animal?

The protocol here is very similar to what a lot of people have to go through, minus the taking off of the shoes. You won’t have to go through the body scanner, just a walk-through metal detector. If you do not go through the detector, a pat-down will be necessary. If your animal triggers an alarm, they will not separate you from it, but the animal will have to go through additional screening. If you have medication for the animal, it will have to go through X-ray screening.

Anything that’s necessary to maintain control of the animal doesn’t need to be removed, but collars, vests and backpacks are subject to screening. If you have to exit because your animal needs relief, you’ll have to go through security again, but you can request to go to the front of the line. If you have any questions or concerns, you can always ask a TSA agent or supervisor for assistance.

What Happens on the Plane with Your Service Animal?

No matter the type of animal with whom you are traveling, if it’s allowed in the cabin there are universal rules between all airlines that you’ll have to obey. Once on board the plane, your animal must be on the floor at your feet or in your lap and not protrude into the aisles or another passenger’s space, and you won’t be able to sit in the exit row. It’s also required by the Air Carrier Access Act that you give at least  48 hours notice of bringing a service animal, as well as required bulkhead seating, if it’s necessary.  Airlines also have specific provisions regarding service animals and emotional support animals.

The nuances of traveling with a service animal may vary slightly depending on the airline, but for the most part the policies are the same. You’ll have to provide ID tags, or at least a credible verbal assurance as to the animal’s credentials. The animal will have to be properly trained to be comfortable in a plane and around other people in a tight space. Most airlines reserve the right to refuse boarding or kick you off the plane if you or your animal are acting in a threatening manner, which is of course subjectively determined by the flight attendant and/or pilot.

Flying with an emotional support animal follows similar rules, but usually requires additional documentation. These include any one or all of the following from a certified doctor or mental health professional:

  • That you have a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition (DSM IV).
  • That you need the emotional support or psychiatric service animal as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at your destination.
  • That the individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and you are under his or her professional care.
  • The date and type of the mental health professional or medical doctor’s license and the state or other jurisdiction where it was issued.

Airlines do reserve the right to not allow you to board or kick you off the plane of the animal is acting in an aggressive manner, so be sure that it is properly trained to be around a lot of people in a small space. You’ll want to make sure you check the specific airline’s policies in this regard.

Having the ability to bring a service or emotional support animal on board with you when you fly provides peace of mind and flexibility when traveling.


  1. Service Dogs are used by individuals with “invisible disabilities”, the most referenced being PTSD. Individuals who suffer from PTSD obtain medical approval for a service dog because of the psychiatric, comfort, and physical boundary cues that the dog is trained to sense for that person. Service dogs accompany these individuals wherever they go as well. One need not have an obvious physical impairment to be approved for and benefit from a service dog.
    Emotional support dogs are not permitted everywhere in public. They are permitted on public transportation and hotels, and public housing.

  2. Beware – Even when flying from US cities British Airways & Virgin Atlantic have more stringent rules for Emotional Support Animals.
    They insist they are trained to perform specific tasks and are registered by a certain International Organization.
    They say they don’t have to adhear to ADA standard Doctors letters. We had to cancel our tickets and fly American Airlines who were much more accommodating.

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