Flying isn’t always fun. If you have an emotional support animal (ESA) and you’re wondering how it can accompany you to your destination — or if you require its support during the flight — you need to know your options before you board.
While ESAs were historically allowed to travel for free, recent changes in legislation mean that most airlines have amended their policies and are now charging a fee. Not all US airline companies have the same policy, so it’s important to check ahead before you buy your ticket.
Below we outline the recent changes to emotional support animal policies on American Airlines and what this means for you and your ESA.
Changes to American Airlines ESA Policy
The ESA and service animal policy by American Airlines is in line with federal laws granting rights to handlers and their service animals. Prior to March 2021, American Airlines treated service animals and ESAs the same. Both were given the same rights on board and were allowed to fly with their handlers.
However, recent changes in new legislation from the Department of Transportation (DOT) mean airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals. Only trained service animals can travel for free.
If you have an ESA that provides specific support for a mental disability, you may want to consider registering your animal as a psychiatric service dog (PSD) instead. PSDs are allowed on American Airlines for free and are granted the same rights as other service animals.
What Do These Changes Mean for ESAs?
Emotional support animals are now treated as pets on American Airlines flights. Therefore, ESAs are charged a pet fee and must travel in an enclosed pet carrier, either in the cabin or in the luggage or cargo area.
While this news may be disappointing for ESA handlers, you can still bring your animal with you; however, there are a few restrictions, which we cover below.
How to Take Your ESA on American Airlines Flights
If your ESA is small enough, it can be brought into the cabin as a pet and treated as carry-on luggage. If they’re too large for the cabin, they must travel in the American Airlines cargo. Fully trained service dogs can, however, fly in the cabin at no additional charge.
Bear in mind there are some restrictions to where your pet can travel to/from. Below are the locations that are permissible for pets (on flights up to 12 hours):
- US (48 contiguous states)
- Central America
- Puerto Rico
However, you should check each destination’s airlines before traveling as there are special restrictions for passengers in Canada, Central America, and Mexico.
Like most airlines, passengers can bring their ESA (dogs or cats) into the cabin as a carry-on if they meet the following requirements:
- There is only 1 pet carrier or kennel containing 1 animal.
- The animal stays inside its carrier for the duration of the flight.
- The animal can move around freely (including standing and turning around) inside the kennel.
- The animal is at least 8 weeks old.
- The weight of the kennel and the animal doesn’t exceed 20 lbs.
- The kennel dimensions are no more than 19 x 13 x 9 inches (mainline flights) or 16 x 12 x 8 inches (regional flights).
If your ESA can’t meet these requirements or is too large, they must travel in the cargo.
Note: Each aircraft has limited space for carry-on animals. For example, they only accept 7 kennels on American flights (excluding service animals) and 5 kennels on American Eagle flights.
Also, passengers traveling in Business Class must place their kenneled ESA in a dedicated animal compartment located at the front of the plane.
Checked Pets Rules
American Airlines only accepts active-duty animals from the US Military and State Department Foreign Service as checked pets. Unlike other airlines that allow passengers to bring their animal in the hold luggage area, American Airlines restricts this to military and government personnel. Animals that don’t meet the requirements must travel in the cargo area instead.
Some restrictions are placed on checked short-nosed cat and dog breeds on American Airlines flights. These include:
- Burmese, Persian, Himalayan, and exotic shorthair cats.
- Bulldogs, boxers, Boston terrier, English toy spaniel, American Staffordshire terrier, Cane Corse, Japanese chin, and other dog breeds.
Breeds that don’t fall into the short-nosed category will likely be accepted on the flight as an ESA or service animal without trouble.
Other species exclusions include amphibians, reptiles, insects, non-household birds, ferrets, goats, rodents, and animals with hooves (minus trained miniature horses), tusks, or horns. If an animal is visibly dirty or has a perceivable odor, it will also be excluded from boarding.
For passengers traveling with pets, a fee is charged. Whether the animal is in the cabin, checked in, or transported as cargo, there is always a fee for traveling with a pet.
Normal pet fees for American Airlines are $125 per animal in a carry-on pet kennel or $200 per checked animal in a kennel. Cargo fees vary, so you’ll need to check with the airline ahead of time.
Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD)
As mentioned above, American Airlines accepts psychiatric service dogs (PSDs) without a fee. Training your ESA to become a psychiatric service dog can be a desirable option for people who require their animal for mental health reasons.
However, while PSDs are treated the same as service dogs, there are some regulations, such as providing documentation outlining vaccination and microchip records 48 hours before your flight.
Flying with a Psychiatric Service Dog
To fly with a psychiatric service dog on American Airlines, they must:
- Be harnessed, leashed, and tethered at all times. They cannot roam freely in the cabin.
- Be 4 months of age or older.
- Be well-behaved and fully weaned.
- Be able to fit under your seat, in your lap, or at your feet (lap animals must be smaller than a 2-year-old child). Lap animals must also not encroach on other passengers.
- Be approved at the airport and cleared for travel after staff confirm your PSD will fit safely at your feet.
- Be able to fit under the seat in front of you (if in a kennel).
- Be limited to 2 animals (i.e., 2 service dogs per person)
PSDs are also not permitted to:
- Sit in or block an exit row.
- Block the aisles or take space in the aisles.
- Sit or lay down in a seat of their own.
- Eat or sit on tray tables.
If your psychiatric service dog is too big or too heavy to fit in the cabin, you may be offered an alternative flight or rebooked on a flight with more open seats. You also have the option of checking your PSD into the cargo hold as a pet.
Service Dog Behavior in the Cabin
While they aren’t required to stay inside a travel kennel, PSDs are not allowed to roam freely on a flight. You must abide by the airline’s rules which include:
- No feeding from the tray tables.
- No unprovoked, aggressive behavior (growling, biting, attempting to bite, lunging, etc.)
- Excessive barking or vocalization unless the handler is facing an emergency.
- Always being under the handler’s control (a leash or harness required, unless it impedes the specific tasks of a service dog).
- For flights longer than 8 hours, the animal must be able to relieve itself in a sanitary way.
If you don’t abide by the behavior rules, you may be charged the usual pet fees. Because PSDs are required to be well trained to stay calm and disciplined in public spaces, consistent bad behavior may result in being classified as a pet instead.
How to Get a Psychiatric Service Dog
If you have a mental health issue and require daily assistance, a psychiatric service dog might be a good solution. However, bear in mind that there are certain criteria that need to be met — the first being a mental disability that is demonstrably supported by the services of a psychiatric service dog.
Like an ESA, registering for a PSD also requires handlers to receive a letter of recommendation from a mental health professional stating the need for the animal. Handlers must also be active participants in the dog’s training and have the financial capacity to support their animal.
Temporary Suspension of High-Risk Dogs
It’s also worth being aware that as of July 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a temporary suspension of dogs from countries that are considered a high-risk for rabies. This includes service dogs and pets (both carry-on and checked).
If you have a dog from a high-risk country, you’ll need an approved CDC Dog Import Permit, or you’ll be required to meet the CDC vaccination and microchip requirements to fly on American Airlines. Cats from high-risk rabies countries are also not accepted on flights as carry-on or checked pets.
The Bottom Line
While emotional support animals are no longer accommodated on American Airlines flights, you do have options. The first is for your animal to travel as a carry-on pet or in the cargo area. Your ESA can also travel as a checked pet, but only if they are active-duty members of the US Military and State Department Foreign Service.
The final option is to register your ESA as a psychiatric service dog instead: this allows your animal to travel as a service dog for free if you submit the appropriate documentation to the airline within 48 hours of travel. In order for your ESA to become a PSD, contact your medical doctor or get in touch with US Service Animals (USSA) to be connected with a doctor directly. Once you’ve qualified, you can apply for a service dog at any service animal agency in your city or state.
Otherwise, be sure to check the individual policies of each airline before you book a flight to find out what they allow and require as documentation.