Lately there’s been a flurry of articles, blog posts and Facebook comments about people flying with “questionable” service animals. What exactly do I mean by questionable? In this case, I believe it’s anybody who has a service animal that doesn’t have a visible disability.
Now, granted there are a number of conditions that qualify folks with invisible disabilities for service animals; but unfortunately there are probably just as many people out there who want to travel with their pets, so they just call them service animals. Can you really do the latter? Yes and no. Here are some often misunderstood facts about what you do and don’t need to fly with legitimate service animals.
- · First and foremost, you don’t have to have any patch, certification or photo identification for your service animal. Some legitimate service animal organizations provide vests after training is completed, but even more “card mills” provide service animal credentials to just about anyone for $65 or more. You don’t need the latter.
- · How do you tell the difference between a legitimate service animal organization and a card mill? Well if all you have to do is write out a check, you are dealing with a card mill. Legitimate service animal organizations usually require some sort of in-person training.
- · That said, you can also train your own service animal, as there is no airline requirement that you have to undergo any type of formal training. I know many people who have excellent service dogs, which they have trained on their own. Of course, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, which is why the legitimate service animal organizations provide formal training.
- · The one thing you do have to have to fly with a service animal is a disability. There is no certification required to fly with a service animal — all you have to do is self-declare that you have a disability, and state that your service animal helps you with some aspect of that disability.
- · On the other hand, if the gate agent isn’t convinced that your animal qualifies for service animal status, they can ask about what functions your service animal provides. They cannot however require that you demonstrate those functions. Additionally they can’t (or shouldn’t legally) ask about the nature of your disability.
- · If they still aren’t convinced, they can ask you for documentation, but they can’t require it. In other words, if you can credibly explain why you need your service animal, you are good to go. It also helps if you can explain what your service animal does for you and how he was trained. Again, not required, but extremely helpful.
- · Conversely, if your animal provides emotional support or comfort because of a diagnosed mental condition, it’s not considered a service animal. It’s considered an emotional support animal, and the airlines hold emotional support animals to a higher standard. Specifically, they don’t have to let you fly with your emotional support animal if you can’t produce a letter from a mental health professional who is currently treating you. That letter has to state your diagnosis and explain your need for an emotional support animal.
- · And of course, both emotional support animals and service animals must behave properly. In other words, they can’t exhibit aggressive behavior or run around the cabin.
Although these regulations were enacted to prevent discrimination against people flying with legitimate service animals, some people try and find loopholes to fly with their pets. Of course the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is constantly evolving, and who knows what will be in future updates to the law. But for now, these are the rules of the air.
Here are some more tips for flying with your service animal.
It should also be noted that even though the ACAA recognizes emotional support animals, the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically excludes them.