American Airlines Asked Its Employees About Therapy Pets in the Cabin. Here’s What They Think.

US airlines have been cracking down on passengers bringing emotional support animals on board this year.

Although many of the efforts they’ve been making are milquetoast, such as making the owner of an animal sign a form saying their animal can behave there’s a cultural shift at the airlines from one where ‘anything a passenger brings on board goes’ if they mention having a special need to one where there are limits.

Passengers had gradually learned that any animal could be brought on board without paying a pet in cabin fee, and without putting the pet underneath the seat in front, by claiming to need an accommodation. That created a reaction from other passengers assuming that anyone with an animal on board was scamming the system rather than having a genuine need.

Airlines were scared of federal repercussions under the Air Carrier Access Act. Steps to reform support animal rules have stalled for years. Under the current administration airlines have been in touch with the Department of Transportation to figure out what they can do under current law and regulatory guidance.

American Airlines surveyed their employees about emotional support animals. It seems to me to be a survey where they basically knew the results before asking the question, but the survey allows them to present these answers as their front line employees speaking rather than as their own position. It’s more rhetorically effective.

Here’s what American Airlines employees say about emotional support animals:

What they find is that American’s employees believe the current state of affairs where a flight departing a hurricane region could easily adopt the call sign ‘Noah’s Ark’ is disruptive. Bear in mind that American Airlines framed the policy options in asking the question, but employees agree the best approach is to allow service animals as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act — and not other animals — on board outside of existing ‘pet in cabin’ guidelines. In other words, accommodate passengers under the ADA instead of applying the more ambiguous Air Carrier Access Act rules.

That seems a reasonable policy response, using existing legal frameworks to provide for people with real needs while eliminating untrained animals of all stripes from the passenger cabin. Do you agree with the majority of American’s employees? What do you think?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Works for me. ADA trained animals only. No “emotional support” animals, or others that meet some “fuzzy” and unprovable need. The rest of us are safe, as the animals are trained, and people with real needs have them met.

  2. ADA trained with documents should be the only animals not needing to be in a carrier or require any fee.

    All other “support animals” are fine if you pay the fee and have them in a pet carrier. That minimizes some of the problems noted such as soiling the airplane or aggressive behavior (it can be aggressive sounding, but stuck in a carrier isn’t as scary to others than an animal on a person’s lap).

    I am a huge pet lover but there needs to be a easy to follow line in the sand. And yes, I know people in my life who have used the emotional support animal line as an excuse to save money on the fee. Lame but true.

  3. Seeing eye dogs
    Hearing dogs for people who are deaf
    Dogs who are trained to assist people in wheelchairs.
    ADA definition all the way.

    Emotional support animals, pay the fee and after take off and landing you can hold them on your lap in your pet carrier.

    My cousin is blind and uses a seeing eye dog.

  4. My cooment is the following about allowing animals on planes. We were on 2 flights recently, the first one the flight attendant made an announcement that peanuts would not be served due to the peanut allergy and if anyone brought peanuts on board to please not have any. Then on our next flight, right behind me was this “big” dog. I am VERY allergic to dogs/cats and also the lady sitting across this couple told them the same thing, to which of course nothing was done. Now, a peanut allergy is very important, but an animal allergy is not?
    A few days after our flight my husband had to take me to the ER because I was having difficulty breathing, had an asthma attack, have lost my voice (now for 10 days), still coughing and wheezing. All this thanks to a “service” animal. Common people! this is just NOT right!

  5. I believe emotional support animals help all kinds of people deal with and recover from all kinds of trauma.

    I also believe very strongly that if someone is not emotionally stable enough to function reasonably for a few hours without being in physical or line-of-sight contact with their emotional support animal, that person has no business being on commercial airline flight.

    The risk they pose to the rest of us in that situation is just too great.

    There are other lower-risk means of travel. Cars, buses, and trains.

    I know people with serous respiratory or allergy conditions that can be seriously aggravated by animal hair / dander. Those are not judgement call conditions like “requires an animal for emotional support”.

    If the dog has been trained to assist with a specific set of physical task, that’s fine. Small group of people who do not have judgement call conditions. Every accommodation should be made, including ways for them to fly with their dogs.

    Get your support animal. Get better. And then fly commercial.

  6. @Ampy Cox, I’m in favor of ADA service animals only but if one was on board that was so certified, you’d still have an issue with allergies. So would your allergy be more important than a person that needed a seeing eye dog?

  7. ADA certified animals only for passengers with true assistance needs. Passengers flying with “emotional support animals” are scamming the airlines in order to avoid paying for the animal’s ticket. This is a significant source of lost revenue, and unfair to those who are honest and pay for their pet to travel in the cabin while remaining in its carrier. Of course, all pet lovers would be happier traveling with their pet on their lap or on the floor in front of them (not that there is any space), but that does not constitute “emotional support.”

  8. IMO, there are three types of people who travel with emotional support animals:

    1) People who don’t want to pay the pet fee.
    2) People who don’t want to put their pet in the hold (hello UA).
    3) People who have a legit anxiety disorder.

    If you just charged a travel fee for anyone traveling with an animal (pet or ESA), you would eliminate a huge chunk of group number 1. If a larger person needs to buy an extra seat, why should a person with a pet get to take up more space in the cabin, potentially at other passenger’s expense? Also, airlines restrict the number of pets-in-cabin on any flight…..I don’t see why the same can’t be done for Emotional Support Animals (or maybe a fee gets charged after that minimum is met).

    If there were better standards for transporting animals in the hold you can eliminate the group that doesn’t put pets in the hold. It just isn’t reasonable to bring a big dog back into the coach cabin….but then again, it’s not reasonable that the only alternative is the possibility that your dog will get lost like luggage or killed by a fire containment system.

    If there were better standards for defining an anxiety/mental health disorder it would also be helpful. It’s too easy to get a doctor’s note, IMO. Maybe it should only by a licensed psychiatrist, or after a minimum number of sessions, etc. I’m all for getting rid of the ‘scammers’. At the same time, there are people who have legitimate needs who should not be discriminated against–and mental health issues are often dismissed and misunderstood.

  9. I know plenty of people that abuse this and don’t really need an emotional support dog…….they just get a letter from their DR and it’s done. Not saying I condone it (no pets myself), but there is a lot of this going on.

  10. ADA defined animals ONLY. It’s the common sense solution.
    As to ESAs: If you can’t get on an aircraft without little Fluffy’s help, that’s why there’s Greyhound..

    With @ Ampy Cox on the whole allergies thing.

  11. I’m LOL at the phrasing of the survey questions. If this were done in an academic setting, the advisory committee would tear them a new one for framing the questions under the assumption of a desired answer. Consider the difference between these two questions:

    “Do you believe that permitting untrained thugs to rifle through your belongings and stare at images of your naked body significantly impinges on the flying experience?” versus “What effect does the operation of TSA screening having on your flying experience? 0 – greatly degrades : 5 – greatly improves.”

  12. @Ampy Cox- I’m sorry but I don’t buy your story at all. If your that allergic to animals you should never be flying because even animal hair on people’s clothing can cause an IgE reaction and thus a medical emergency in flight. Also having to go to the ER two days later and having ten days of symptoms is very atypical. Sounds like you have other medical problems.

  13. @James
    Are you a doctor who is diagnosing on the internet, sight unseen?

    You have probably never seen or even heard of allergic reactions that can be deadly.

  14. No no no, this is terrible. I need one cloned dog for each of my emotional disabilities, one of which Is the fact so many cloned dogs are driving me nuts. Oh, wait, that requires another cloned dog. Some day Gary will post a picture of them all so you guys know I’m not joking .

  15. @liam: big dog not reasonable? Well, then, how about a small pony?

    They are very fashionable if you wear a polo shirt at the same time

  16. Classic AA: they don’t care about what CUSTOMERS think about anything. Any rational company would have asked customers first.

  17. I would far prefer to travel next to a dog than a person, they are generally much nicer. I spoke to a well known actor a few months ago who volunteered to sit next to a passenger with his dog, since the the original person was a little nervous, and didn’t want to sit next to the dog unless it was “hypoallergenic”. Anyway, the actor said his Dad told him ther are two types of people in the world, Dog Lovers, and assholes. I tend to agree.
    Why not just charge the ESA people a fee for a seat with a larger animal (say over 25 lbs), and that would cut way down on supposed abuse, and not take up other passenger space?

  18. For all of those who commented they would only allow “ADA certified service animals” to travel in the cabin, there is no ADA certification for service animals. I know this because my wife is deaf and has traveled with a hearing dog for over 20 years. Airlines and other means of public transport can only ask two questions to determine whether a dog is a service animal. The questions are “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” You cannot ask any questions of someone who has an obvious disability like blindness or is mobility impaired. In addition, You may not: “ask about the nature or extent of an individual’s disability, require proof that the animal has been certified, trained or licensed as a service animal, require the animal to wear an identifying vest or tag, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the task or work.

    My wife’s dogs were obtained through an organization called Paws With A Cause located in Wayland, MI. Paws With A Cause trains and provides service dogs for individuals with physical disabilities, hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing, seizure response dogs for individuals with epilepsy, service dogs for children with autism, and combination dogs for service and hearing, service and seizure, and seizure and hearing. The selection and training of Paws service dogs is intense. The dogs are given obedience training by foster families who usually raise the dog from a pup. They are sent to the Wayland training center between 15 months and 18 months where they are carefully tested for aptitude and skills to match the needs of a Paws client. The dogs are trained for 3 to 6 months at the training center before being sent to a client where their training as a team is closely monitored by field trainers. Clients must work with their dogs in their homes and in public places to master the specific tasks by which they assist their masters to become more independent and improve the quality of their life.

    My wife proudly shows her photo ID from Paws With A Cause declaring her and her dog are a Paws certified service dog team. There are no laws requiring certification or identification of a service dog. My wife and her dog worked hard to achieve a level of excellence which ensures the dog knows his or her tasks and she can confidently travel, shop, and do other public activities and not be concerned about the dog’s demeanor or behavior. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous websites which offer and from which anyone can purchase a “service dog certificate or ID.” These profiteers need to be shutdown and the purchasers of such bogus documentation stopped from destroying the independence and quality of life real service dogs have helped improve for their masters.

    Until and if the ADA and ADAA are revised, remember the two questions you are allowed to ask someone about a service dog; “Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?” and “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” Over ninety percent of those with a fake service dog will be unable to answer these two questions. If they can’t answer the questions, they and their pet don’t fly!

  19. Proposed test

    Certified trained pets for real disabilities no fee
    Pets in kennel standard fee
    Pets not in kennel double fee

    Then see how many emotional support animals you get.

  20. First of all, it is ironic that the in newsletter advertisements are for “REGISTERING” your Emotional Support Dog. As pointed above by David and Johnny there are no such registries. The internet abounds with so-called ESA dog documentation scams. On one site, for USD149 ,you can get a letter to qualify your need for the ESA based on a psychiatric questionaire or telephone call . They will send a very offical looking certificate on official looking letterhead for USD149 for a year. They also are happy to sell you all kinds of bogus looking patches, vests and harnesses.
    Those would offer little comfort to the customer mauled by a dog in his row.

    I think that Johnny’s proposed suggestion of uping the fee to bring an appropiately sized airline medical desk approved ESA on board to USD250. A “pet in cabin” should be USD350. And David’s description of the training his wife’s service dog required is spot on. There isn’t a service dog fairy with a magic wand that goes “poof” andyou have a service dog.

    I am seeing this debate from both sides .

    Firstly I spent 27 years with one of the world largest flag carriers working in both small “line” stations where you did all positions from ticket counter to ramp including loading an unloading baggage on narrow bodies. After a series of other customer service positions I retired from a major international airline as a load planner in the hub’s station operations centre post 9/11. I always worried when we had a dog being shipped in the cargo hold. I made sure that the flight crew knew we had pets in the cargo hold and execatly what kind and how many and which cargo pit. As was seen with United this year, nothing is more tragic when an arriving flight had a pet that didn’t survive. Most times it was not such a public tragedy but it was still a tragedy for those of us working the flights.

    As sad those events were that happened this year, United is now requiring that pet bags get a bright yellow tag and pay the pet in cabin fee for in cabin animals. If you look at United’s web site under travelling with animals you can see that they are requesting the following for Emotional Support Animals:
    Customers traveling with an emotional support animal or a psychiatric service animal must provide the required documentation at least 48 hours before the customer’s flight by email ( If we are unable to validate the documentation, if the customer does not provide completed documentation, or if advance notification is not given, customers may be required to transport the animal as a pet, and pet fees may apply. Contact the United Accessibility Desk at 1-800-228-2744 if you have any questions about this process or are booking a flight within 48 hours of the departure time.
    I think this an excellent approach. The aeromedical desk staff will help sort out these “ESA” people Travellers do need to check what their airlines policy is.

    Lastly, I am now on the other side of this service animal question. I now have to have a trained service animal with me at all times. Because of my needs, my service dog must be small and of a size that I can easily pick up and put down safely. She weighs in at 8.4 pounds. I have a roll aboard petote that can fit under a seat but I also carry a totebag I can use if I need to gate check the roll aboard.
    I sometimes get the reverse of the sneaking a “service” dog into the cabin for free questions. People don’t expect to see such a small dog ( 8.4lbs Japanese Chin ) as a required service dog. To help with establishing her bona fides I do have her wear a black solid harness with velcro patches with service dog in large letters as well a patch not to separate the dog from me. We also use leashes with service dogs in reflective letters on it. And lastly, I keep a copy of my doctor’s letter reduced down to a small size and laminated waterproof inside a slit on the underside of her harness if push really comes to shove.

    I do wish all pet owners would think through the risk and terror that Buffy and Binky must endure to be at their owners side. Remember wolves never had a dying need to fly with a human

  21. If someone needs an “emotional” support animal, then they could take a medication to get them thru the flight. Having had a major mental illness for 25 years, somehow I have been able to fly all over the world with some attivan . Although I have always had two dogs, even one would make flying more complicated. From descriptions of economy class having as many as six dogs at once sound very unsafe for children particularly. There are breeds of the little “pheephee” types which are not recommended to be around children. Were I a parent flying with my children, I would have my attorney’s phone number on speed dial.

  22. We need to change the law to require legal certification of ADA animals. Except for those ADA certified, NO DOGS OR OTHER ANIMALS ON ANY FLIGHT IN THE CABIN. PERIOD. END OF PROBLEM.

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