What Is United Airlines’ Policy on ESAs and Service Animals?

On January 11th, 2021, the Department of Transportation (DOT) updated its guidelines under the ACAA on what animals must be allowed entry on aircrafts. In response, many air carriers, including United Airlines, no longer recognize emotional support animals (ESA) as service animals on their flights. They also narrowed their definition of service animals to only dogs.

However, while ESAs are no longer permitted to be out in the cabin with their owners, service dogs and psychiatric service dogs are. United Airlines also allows small, non-service animals to travel in a carrier as “in-cabin pets” with their owners.

What Is the Difference Between a Service Animal and an ESA?

Service animals or psychiatric service animals are specifically dogs that have been trained to do work or tasks for someone with a physical or mental disability. These dogs can be trained to do any number of tasks, including but not limited to interrupting a panic attack, opening doors or cabinets, and using their body weight to administer deep pressure therapy (DPT).

Service dogs are mainly for physical impairments, while psychiatric service dogs are mainly for mental or emotional disorders, but both are protected under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and ACAA (Air Carrier Access Act). Owners of service dogs must be diagnosed by a medical provider.

ESAs (emotional support animals) are used in instances when people need comfort during distressing episodes, but these animals are not trained to do any specific tasks or work. While service animals are defined only as dogs, ESAs can be any species. People with an ESA also must be diagnosed by a medical provider, but ESAs are not protected under the ADA or ACAA.

Requirements for Animals to Fly United

All animals traveling with United Airlines, service dogs included, must be at least 4 months old. Only dogs and cats are permitted to fly, United Airlines also does not allow pit-bulls on board. If your pet is snub-nosed (e.g. French bulldogs and Persian cats) you should consult your veterinarian before travel as altitude can affect its breathing.

Traveling on United with a Service Dog

Passengers traveling with a service dog (or psychiatric service dog) must first complete and submit a U.S. Department of Transportation Air Transportation Service Animal Training Behavior and Attestation form found on United Airlines’ service animal page.

For flights longer than 8 hours, passengers must also declare that their service dog won’t inappropriately relieve themselves in-flight by submitting a U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation form.

The forms should be submitted to United Airlines at least 48 hours before travel unless travel was booked within the 48-hour window. Passengers should also keep copies of these forms on their person at all times.

During the Flight

Service dogs must be tethered or harnessed at all times and under the direct control of their handler, otherwise, United will not recognize them as service animals and will require them to travel as non-service pets.

Service dogs are never allowed to sit in a seat and must remain within the space of their handler’s reserved seat, they cannot block any part of an exit, a neighbor’s space, or an aisleway. Passengers with service dogs can sit anywhere in the cabin except an exit row.

Service dogs can also travel in a carrier and may be removed from the carrier mid-flight. But the carrier must be stowed under the seat in front of you during taxi, take-off, and landing. Service dogs in carriers must be able to sit, stand, and turn around comfortably.

It’s important to know that United Airlines is allowed to ask you about your service dog and if they are trained to do work or tasks to assist you with your disability at any point during travel. They may not ask for specific information about the nature of your disability or request that your dog performs any task or work on command. If you cannot verbally explain the work or tasks your service dog is trained to do, you may be asked for a written declaration.

United Airlines limits the number of service dogs per person to two.

Traveling with a Non-Service Animal

United Airlines recognizes non-service animals as “in-cabin” pets that are cats and small dogs in a carrier, no other species are allowed to fly with United. Passengers traveling with an in-cabin pet have a few more restrictions than those with service dogs. In-cabin pets must be indicated on the passenger’s reservation ahead of time. Contact United Airlines directly if you need assistance with this.

Passengers with an in-cabin pet are advised to check-in with United about 30 minutes earlier than usual. Upon check-in, pets will get a bright yellow tag for their kennel or carrier.

Soft-sided carriers should be no larger than 18” (L) x 11” (W) x 11” (H), and hard-sided kennels cannot exceed 17.5” (L) x 12” (W) x 7.5” (H), animals should be able to stand, sit and turn around comfortably, with only one animal allowed per carrier. In-cabin pets have to remain in their carrier at all times, and the carrier must be placed under the seat in front of you.

Service Dogs in Training

While most airlines do not allow service dogs in training, United Airlines makes an exception under specific circumstances. Service dogs in training are allowed with a designated dog trainer, and must still be assisting someone with a disability. The same forms must be submitted to the airline, but passengers and dog handlers considering taking a service dog in training on board should contact United Airlines in advance to make sure they know the exact requirements.

How Do I Register My Dog as a Service or Psychiatric Service Dog?

Registering your service or psychiatric service dog is not a requirement as there is not one national database. However, registering your dog as a service animal can make documentation easier. Registration provides information such as an ID card that informs you and others of your rights under the ADA, and a vest that helps to identify your dog as a working service animal.

Does United Airlines Allow Pets to Travel in the Cargo Hold?

United Airlines used to operate their “PetSafe” pet transport and shipping program for cats and dogs in a pressurized section of the cargo hold.

However, as of July 7th, 2020, they are no longer offering this program, and all animals traveling with United must be an in-cabin pet or a service dog. Offerings of this program are due to change, so contact United Airlines directly for more information.

Does United Airlines Require a Veterinary Health Form?

Yes, and depending on where you’re traveling they may require different information. Within the continental U.S., all pets must have a certificate of health from their veterinarian with proof of current rabies vaccination.

Passengers traveling to Hawaii are subject to extra health information and should look up the local laws and regulations. United suggests contacting the airline directly to make sure you know what forms your pet needs and researching the requirements of your destination.

It’s also important to remember that animals cannot travel within 30 days of receiving a rabies vaccination.

Is There a Fee for Traveling with an Animal on United Airlines?

Service dogs and psychiatric service dogs travel with their passenger for free. Passengers with in-cabin pets will be charged a fee of $125 per pet, per way, and a $125 service charge for each layover longer than 4 hours within the continental U.S. (or more than 24 hours if outside of the U.S.). Contact United Airlines for more information on fees.

Other Things to Know about Traveling with a Service Dog or Non-service Pet on United Airlines:

Service animals and in-cabin pets are not permitted to travel on United Airlines with an unaccompanied minor. In-cabin flight space is limited, so it’s important to make sure you reserve your space in advance.

All pets, including service animals, are subject to a TSA screening, this may entail removing your animal from its carrier so the carrier can be x-rayed, and taking the animal through a non-x-ray metal detector.