What Is The Air Carrier Access Act?

The fact of the matter is that getting on an airplane can be stressful – especially for those who have a mental or physical disability. You may have heard about the Air Carrier Access Act, as well as its recent update, but didn’t understand what it meant for you. We’ll dive into the specifics so you can plan your next trip with confidence.

It is important to have a complete understanding as to what the Air Carrier Access Act – or the ACAA – is in order to ensure you’re following it. Additionally, knowing what is and is not allowed in the ACAA gives you the ability to ensure the law is followed by the airline, and your rights are upheld.

Not only is it important to gain an idea as to what the Air Carrier Access Act is, but it is also crucial to know what constitutes a service animal. While the full definition is more in-depth, a service animal is trained to perform tasks that help someone with their disability. Service animals can also be for mental health issues–called psychiatric service animals–which may be severely affected by a long flight.

Through understanding more about the ACAA, along with learning useful tips to ensure a successful flight, you can make the most of what would otherwise be a stressful event.

If you would like to learn more or register your pet as a psychiatric service animal, be sure to contact us and allow us here at U.S. Service Animals to guide you through each step of the process.

About The Air Carrier Access Act

Up until the late 1980s, there were no protections in place for people with disabilities in a variety of areas, especially air travel. The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, and subsequent updates in the following years, helped to make air travel more accessible to all by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. This law defined what rights should be granted to all passengers and created obligations for airlines to accommodate passengers requiring special needs.

The Air Carrier Access Act applies to all airlines and lists the specific rules they must follow. It also provides guidance on the design and setup of aircraft in order to allow these rules to take effect, such as where wheelchairs and other medical necessities should be stored and how to prioritize storage space and accommodate multiple passengers with disabilities.

The law also grants passengers the right to fly unaccompanied if it would not cause a safety issue to the passenger or others on the flight.

Airlines are not allowed to refuse service to any person with a disability or require advanced notice from the passenger. Some accommodations may require advanced notice so that the airline has adequate time to prepare. If there is a perceived safety concern to the flight and other passengers, the airline can deny service, but a written explanation needs to be provided.

Recent Changes to the ACAA

The recent major change in the Air Carrier Access Act is in regard to emotional support animals. Previously, the ACAA allowed emotional support animals in the cabin of a plane for free, regardless of the animal’s size.

However, as of January 2021, the ACAA has been amended and emotional support animals are treated as regular pets by airlines. This means that size restrictions apply to your ESA, and they can charge a pet fee.

Service animals, however, are still protected both by the ACAA and the ADA. If a big draw to getting an emotional support animal was the ability to have comfort on a flight, getting a psychiatric service animal may be an alternative.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals

It’s a common misconception that emotional support animals and service animals are the same things, but they actually have legal differences.

A service animal is a dog (or in some cases, a miniature horse) that is trained to do work or perform a task that helps with the handler’s disability. Service dogs can be trained to work with any disability, ranging from mobility issues to PTSD. Service dogs that are trained to work with mental health problems are called psychiatric service dogs.

Becoming a service animal takes a lot of training, both because the tasks are essential to the handler’s well-being and because the animal needs to be able to act very well in public.

Service dogs are protected by the ADA, which enables them to go into public places without question, where animals are not usually allowed. As mentioned, they’re also protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, so they’re always allowed with you on an airplane.

What About Emotional Support Animals?

Emotional support animals don’t need to be trained to perform tasks; they’re there simply to comfort someone when they’re having mental health issues. Unlike service animals, emotional support animals can be just about any species–though the most common animals are dogs and cats.

State laws vary when it comes to emotional support animals in public, but they’re not covered by the ADA. While they’re no longer protected by the Air Carrier Access Act, emotional support animals are still covered by the Fair Housing Act which means that your ESA can live with you even if no animals are allowed on the property.

Therapy Dogs

A third type of working dog is a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are similar to ESAs, as they bring comfort to those who may be experiencing stress. Therapy dogs usually work with more than one person, unlike service animals and ESAs who only have one handler. Therapy dogs aren’t protected by the ADA or the Air Carrier Access Act, so like ESAs they’re treated as regular pets by the airlines.

How Can I Fly with a Service Animal?

You shouldn’t ever need proof that your service animal is working with you, but registering with U.S. Service Animals means getting a certificate as well as items like a vest, leash, and tags, which may help curb some of those intrusive questions.

If you already have an ESA and want to know about the process of psychiatric service dog training, don’t hesitate to reach out. The eradication of emotional support animal flying rights is frustrating, but if flying triggers emotional episodes, it’s possible that you may not have to do it alone.

Tips for Flying With a Service Animal

Traveling with your service dog for the first time may be intimidating, but going into it with a plan can ease some of those nerves. We have some tips that can be useful in ensuring both you and your service animal are admitted onto the plane and protected by the ACAA. Typically good practice when flying with a service animal involves the following:

  • Contact the airline ahead of time
  • Have the service dog wear a vest
  • Bring your service animal documentation
  • Get there early
  • Keep calm and relax

Contacting the airline as early as possible is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for a trip with your service dog. This will ensure that you’re able to handle any documentation that the airline thinks is necessary–some airlines require recent vet records and others have their own forms, so it’s important to check this early.

Looking the Part

Another important tip to follow is to have your service animal wear a vest, preferably one with a bright color on it to help identify it as a service animal. By doing so, you can avoid the annoying conversations with numerous airline workers as to whether or not the animal is properly registered. When your service animal wears a vest identifying it as  a service animal, you can effectively and efficiently make it through security and have an overall convenient flight to your next destination.

For the most part, airlines will accept credible verbal proof that your dog is a service dog, but making sure you have the proper identification will make that part of the process less stressful. If the airline requires recent vet records, make sure that documentation is also with you.

Arrive Early

It is also a good idea to try to get there early – especially if it is your first time flying with a service animal. By arriving early, you and your pet can remain comfortable and minimize anxiety, which is often made worse when having to rush to the gate.

Also, getting there early helps ensure the airline is able to make the necessary arrangements for you and your service animal, which may include having you board the plane early. Last but not least, be sure to stay calm during the flight and remember that your best friend is right beside you.

When to Consider a Service Animal

Service animals are ideal for anyone with a physical disability or mental health issues that are severe. If your disability is a physical one, like blindness, service animals are almost certainly the way to go.

Psychiatric service dogs can be very expensive, and they require a lot of training compared to ESAs, but it may be worth it if you have a severe form of PTSD or anxiety.

Emotional support animals are the right choice for people who are diagnosed with just about any mental health issue and can benefit from having a companion. Emotional support animals can be any animals, unlike service animals which must be dogs or miniature horses.

You do not have to be currently diagnosed with a mental health disability to receive an ESA, and testing for a disorder or disability can be completed during the application process. However, ESAs don’t have as many legal protections as psychiatric service dogs.

The Bottom Line

If you suffer from a mental health disability or experience symptoms of a mental health issue and want to learn more about how a psychiatric service animal can help you live a more happy and productive life, consult with us today and find out how we can help.

Here at U.S. Service Animals, we specialize in helping people with mental and physical health concerns register their pets as service animals (or emotional support animals). We can guide you through each step of the process and help ensure you are comfortable on your next flight.