When Emotional Support Animals Create a Safety Hazard For the Rest of the Aircraft

The biggest risks for an airplane are during takeoff and landing. Safety rules are designed to ensure that passengers have unrestricted egress to exits, and that loose items in the cabin don’t become physical threats if knocked around or thrown.

Sometimes the safety rules seem extreme to passengers, for instance you can’t have items larger or heavier than a cell phone or glasses in the seat pocket during takeoff or landing. The FAA explains,

If a seat pocket fails to restrain its contents, the contents of the seat pocket may impede emergency evacuation or may strike and injure a passenger.


  • “no passenger may board an airplane if his or her carry-on baggage exceeds the baggage allowance prescribed in the air carrier’s approved program.”

  • “An air carrier may not allow… passenger entry doors of an airplane to be closed in preparation for taxi or pushback, unless at least one crewmember verifies that each article of carry-on baggage is properly stowed.”

The FAA now allows you to keep out and use cell phones and tablets during takeoff and landing — ‘small portable electronic devices’ — but not larger items like laptops.

Yet larger items like emotional support animals can be found in the aisles of aircraft, or at the feet of a passenger in the aisle rather than under the seat.

Reader Rich shares,

I was on a Delta flight [New York LaGuardia to Ft. Myers] last week that had about 10 dogs on it that kept barking at each other !

And this big one stood higher than the arm rest on the seats that blocked the aisle the entire flight , he was in the bulk head and came to me two rows back and had his his head in my crotch !!

He says that despite sharing his concerns with Delta via multiple channels he’s heard nothing in response.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. @Val
    “people who may need an emotional support are every interactive with the public. ”


    Owh wait…. its just a pet. You get pleasure from hugging animal. And you are too cheap to pay animal fare.

  2. Public safety be dammed! The airlines are terrified of ADA lawsuits, and the FAA is as useless as the TSA. If you need a ESA, ya shouldn’t be flying!

  3. Traveling public, the only way this is going to change is if you express this to the DOT in droves. They hold the strings here. The airlines have no say.

  4. @James. The reason I need an ESA is between me and my doctor. I just want you to no matter what you think or why I need the dog, I along with thousands of others will be carrying our ESA on flights…and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

  5. For those that object…too bad! I hope lots of Eva’s are on several of your flights in the future. And when they are, think of me 😉

  6. the emotional support animal situation is out of control and should be severely restricted

    the days of people going to a friendy, $upportive doctor for a note that lets them bring their pet on a plane must end.

    emotional support animals should only be permitted if the passenger has a government-issued document (VA, court order, government agency, etc.) authenticating their mental impairment

  7. @Val
    Is it? Well, an ESA dog can maul a passenger’s face. A passenger can accidentally step on a dog’s tail isn’t it? In the chaos that ensued, your lovely pet would be put in cargo. Hope it still breath at the time of landing.

    A dog can bite an unprepared man. A man with intention? Good luck with it.

    And yes, there’s a million damn thing to do about it.


  8. @MikeFeldman:

    Really? You think the government should be authenticating someone’s psychological need for a support animal? Is there nothing the government shouldn’t be doing for us? I don’t agree with animal, vegetable or mineral blocking the aisles, but getting the government involved? No. Too much nanny state as it is. Can we do nothing for ourselves anymore???

  9. Personally, I feel that my ESA should be allowed to be with me in any setting. That being said, I made sure that my ESA is a small dog that rides on my lap. He is well behaved and minds me. He has never shown aggression toward another human and avoids aggression in another dog. He wears a clearly marked vest and leash that I can use to secure him to myself.
    I do have concerns about others that may not have control of their ESA. I am concerned for personal safety for that of my ESA. I am concerned about the safety and comfort of other passengers. I don’t feel that others should have to give up their rights so that I can have mine. It’s a learning curve for all involved.

  10. The biggest oversight is, that the animals will panic in case of an accident and that may include mauling others including their owners. Nobody can blame them, they fear for their lives and think everybody is a danger to them. So a muzzle should be mandatory at all times for all animals. Not sure how this will look like for a rooster but there will be a solution…

  11. Simple — There should be *NO* emotional support animals on the aircraft, PERIOD.

    We’ve had ~80+ years of aviation without them in the cabin and it worked fine. When sh*t hits the fan, the aircraft’s engine turns into a fireball and smoke’s pouring into the cabin, your little chihuahua FiFi isn’t going to be able to help you put on your oxygen mask as you’re in a full-blown panic attack.

    If you’re that emotionally fragile that you need to carry around a toy dog like a toddler does a blankie, you need a mature adult to accompany you.

    I say this having spent some time in some very dark places in my lifetime. Anxiety / panic attacks? yep. Inpatient to psych wards? yep. I know what I speak of and have the paperwork to prove it. Where I was mentally, no animal was going to be able to comfort me, especially not some ankle-bitting, yappy dog.

    …and yes, tons people have fake documents for their pet dog. I know of two people who’ve done such from document-mills online so they didn’t have to pay for pet fees. If you’re wondering, they’re the selfish, entitled-mentality jerks you’d expect them to be.

  12. I am sure some ESA’s are legitimate but I believe the majority are just a dodge. They are not trained and in many cases probably more of a danger than a help.

    In one instance we were flying with our small dog in the cabin. Paid for and in a small carrier under the seat; in front of us was an ESA. Our little dog never made a sound but at one point prior to pushback my wife opened the carrier enough to give her water. Only her head was visible but the flight attendant saw this and threatened to have us removed from the flight. We tucked her head back in the carrier and she settled in for the flight.

    In the row in front of us however, the ESA never settled the entire flight. It whined barked made the flight miserable for everyone around it but nothing was said or done because it was an ESA. How an animal that was clearly uncomfortable and incredibly nervous provided support is beyond me.

    There is a simple way to solve the ESA issue. Simply require that all ESA’s be trained and certified to the same extent as other service animals. Without that training no go. This way you can insure the support animals will actually provide the support needed and will also be trained to handle stressful situations. Those who really need them will be able to bring them as needed without bothering other passengers and those who are using the idea of and ESA to avoid leaving their pet at home or paying for transport will find themselves out of luck.

  13. @ Val. Upon reading your vituperative diatribe, it is very apparent that you need more than an emotional support animal. I would suggest that, for starters, you should cut back on your caffeine consumption in the afternoon. Openly transporting pets and/or livestock via public transportation is a very bad idea for a myriad of reasons including the health and safety of EVERYONE on board.
    Just so you know, I loved our pet Golden Retriever. Gracie was an important part of our family and should anyone come to our home, they will need to honor that. However, common sense, good judgement and the concern for OTHERS comfort, health and safety curtailed us from taking our Gracie to environments never intended to accommodate pets, emotions support or otherwise. In a god like fashion, you have unilaterally decided what your fellow passengers should be exposed to. That Val is very self-centered and as offensive as having a chain smoker light up sitting next to you . . . all the while coughing his lungs out.

  14. This ESA subject is obviously of great concern to all of those of us who know that having pets and livestock in the passenger cabin is a very bad idea. Does anyone have a contact or email address for someone in the Department of Transportation or FAA that has the balls to address this safety issue?

  15. We were heartbroken when my childhood asthma reasserted itself in my 50’s, and our beloved indoor/outdoor Lab had to be restricted to outdoors only. But we all made the adjustment, and our dear Napoleon lived another eight years as an outdoor dog (he died at age 15.) That being said, my allergy to dog and cat dander is the primary trigger for my severe asthma episodes. It’s already a challenge to stay in any hotel–you never know when the room has had an animal occupant before you–but now flying is dangerous for me just to be in the cabin! Sometimes, I am unaware an animal is nearby–until 30 minutes into the flight when I begin to have difficulty breathing. My symptoms are not a runny nose or swollen eye problem that can be relieved with Benadryl. I take a daily asthma prophylactic med, several allergy meds, and I carry a rescue inhaler and an Epi-pen. Travel was not a problem for me when the only dogs allowed were designated service animals. Either the animal or I could be moved a relatively safe distance apart, but as the animal number escalates, there will be no safe space for people such as me–and we are numerous. Asthma affects one in twelve people. Most people living with moderate to severe asthma have allergies to animal dander as one of their asthma triggers leading to difficulty breathing. Imagine sitting in your tight little airline seat with an elephant on your chest. That’s difficulty breathing. But according to the ADA, BREATHING is also considered a right. So tell me, why do the “disability” rights of those who need emotional support animals take precedence over my right to breathe?

  16. If airlines are serving food they should be required to follow the same sanitation standards found in other food service places. No pets, no pet hair, no animals in customers eating areas. You can’t have both animals roaming loose in aircraft cabins and sanitation standards sufficient to protect health of passengers for food service on planes. Make a choice, food and drink on planes or pets and livestock. Food service inspections should now be required to include animals in the cabin as part of their certification and inspection process. This isn’t being done.
    Would you want to eat in a restaurant that allows pets and esa animals next to where you eat, while you eat? Why is this allowed on a plane?

  17. Agreed, Walter! But I suspect we will lose this fight. I live on California’s central coast, and restaurants around here almost all allow dogs, usually only on the patio, but not always. Many also have dog menus–for the animal to eat, not to be eaten! I love animals, but as a society, we have lost sight of where their presence is appropriate. Too many people have no concern for how their choices affect others; especially when those choices eliminate the ability of others to choose. I have many friends with indoor animals, but they leave their animals at home when we dine out of respect for those who prefer their meals to be hair-free. The “I-have-a-right-to-keep-my-pet-with-me-at-all-times” lobby is strong. Unless the rest of us speak up loudly–possibly with class action movements–the +pet movement has the momentum to become the rule, rather than the exception.

  18. This is all BULL We all know that ESA are NOT covered by the ADA. I was in NH recently and they note that only ADA service animals are permitted inside. We were at a Maine restaurant and a sign says that the 2013 Maine law does NOT permit any animals into the restaurant for sanitary reasons other then ADA Service animals.

    Sorry but last I know dogs lick their penis and butts and then you want them on a plane with me? I don’t think so.

    @val if you are sitting next to me with your ESA you better have control of it and keep it in your seat , take it with you to the john because I am NOT your dog sitter and keep your ESA out of my seat.

  19. @Walter: Sadly, just this weekend I watched some self-entitled woman walking her pit bull around the grocery store. Just as sad, the dog was better-behaved than she was.

  20. This has gotten entirely out of hand. I fly most weeks on Delta as a Diamond and I have a choc lab I adore AT HOME. Many passengers are afraid of animals, allergic to them and plain bothered by them when trying to sleep. I would never do what I hear them snickering they have done to get their dog on for free. I am NOT speaking of much needed certified service dogs. And if a PTSD Soldier needs emotional support, their dogs will be certified. FAA please stop discriminating against your best customers and stop this. Require certification of all service animals and even charge for them. Only way to control this nightmare!

  21. Lynn, it’s not FAA it is DOT that requires the airlines accept animals. Please, all those bothered by this contact DOT and share your experiences with them.

  22. As my husband says the airlines are worried about a tray eagle that has not been put up or a passenger not wearing a seatbelt but not about a pet who is not in a seatbelt or crate flying through the cabin during severe turbulence blocking aisle or chute during emergency evacuation or biting or acting aggressive when frightened it will definitely be. Passengers will be freaked out enough and they know what is going on, can you imagine a dog’s terror, it has no comprehension it is on an aircraft 30000 feet in the air that is going to make an emergency landing. And if the owner becomes incapacitated during this emergency, who is going to control this terrified animal.

    This policy is idiotic, the safety of the crew and all passengers should come before the wants (possibly needs) of a few.

  23. 1. There is no such thing as universal certification and registration of service animals. The certification only says that the animal passed some organization’s minimum standards. Service Dogs are not required to be certified under the ADA and there are many well trained and well behaved service dogs who are owner trained going through hundreds of hours of training.
    The reason for no universal certification is that each Service Animal is required by the ADA and other relevant laws to be individually trained to meet their disabled partner’s specific needs. Even if 2 people have the same diagnosis, how it affects them and the jobs their service dogs need to do can be totally different and generic training can mean teaching a dog multiple tasks that are not relevant to their handler which is a waste of time and resources.
    While my dog does some mobility work for me, opening the refrigerator is not something I need her to do, if it was all she could do, she wouldn’t be qualified .. also how do you test a dog’s ability to alert to seizures or other medical emergencies without putting their handler at risk? You would need to have over a hundred different tasks to be tested and then who is responsible for testing the dogs and miniature horses? These are just some of the different things that make it difficult to justify the requirement for certification.
    2. Want to register your service dog and willing to part with a few dollars.. go online and boom, you are registered and you can either now print or receive in the mail or email some fake documents that have absolutely no legal standing.
    3. No health certificates required.
    The only requirements for a service dog is that you are a person with a disability and the dog is trained one specific task that helps mitigate your specific disability. No requirements other than it not cause a disturbance. If it does, the vendor including airlines can ask you to leave and come back with the animal.
    Under ADA Psychiatric Service Animals are supposed to be trained to the same extent as service animals. Unfortunately, Air Carrier Access Act lumps you together. I understand the need for people with trained PSAs to travel with their specially trained service dogs.
    Emotional Support animals don’t even have to have that much though you can be required to provide on the letter head of a mental health professional the reason for why you need the dog to make you feel good. Emotional Support Animals are not Service Animals and it states such in the ADA. Most state laws do not allow public access except for limited circumstances.. so no you can’t bring your ESA into that restaurant with you nor can you bring it into the movies. Your only access is to public transportation and to housing. If your untrained animal disrupt the flight.. you should be asked to get off. If your dog bites or otherwise injures an employee or another passenger, you should be removed from the flight and charged with the appropriate laws regarding dog bites and be liable for any damages. Service dog users are.. you should be too and if your dog can’t stay under your seat or in your lap, then you need to deplane. You are endangering everyone on that plane. If your ESA is dirty or makes a mess in the airport or on the plane, you should have to pay for the clean up cost. Mine is trained to go potty on a diaper on command.. is yours? For a few folks an ESA actually is required, but the number of people with them is beyond what should be and those who really need them should probably be working to get a fully trained PSA.
    As a service dog user with a dog that had 8 months of professional daily training to make sure the dog would be able to pass the Canine Good Citizenship Test and a Public Access Training exam by a 3rd party and another 8 months of task specific training including scent training, emotional support animals terrify me. They are a danger to my service dog as most we have encountered have little to no training and have on multiple occasions physically attacked my service dog who was quietly sitting at my feet doing her job of paying attention to me. My dog’s only reaction was to put me between her and the offending dog because I am the leader in our partnership.
    Although not required if I am traveling I carry my doctor’s prescription, my dogs rabies certification and a health certificate because I am required to do by the USDA when transporting an animal across state lines. Some ESAs are not legal in some states, such as Ferrets and some reptiles, monkeys and pet pigs for example. Your non-dog service animal is not protected from confiscation by local authorities at your destination as they are not exempt from federal and local animal regulations. Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals are required to follow all laws regarding vaccination, travel, state registration and transport. Having these documents, means if my dog has an emergency while I am traveling, I have the necessary documents to get her medical treatment and to help her get back to me if we were to be separated due to some unforeseen emergency.
    While I may not have to provide these documents to the airlines, I do have to carry the health certifications and record of vaccination to cross state lines. I can show them to the Airline staff.. can you?
    Are you willing to have them call your doctor’s office and verify the details of why you have an ESA? If not, then you don’t need to travel on the plane because legally, yes, the airline can call your mental health professional’s office and verify the information and they can request you provide it in writing 48 hours in advance of travel.
    It is bad enough that people are passing off their pets as service animals, poorly behaved and poorly trained ESA put the ability of people who actually need service dogs at risk of having access revoked for all of us.
    IAADP has a suggested public access test on their website. If you review it, it is mostly a Canine Good Citizenship exam with some specific tasks that are safety related to situations some service dogs deal with on a day to day basis. If your ESA can pass that test, I welcome you on the plane. If not, you need to deplane or be barred because your animal is a potential menace. They also have detailed lists of tasks that Service dogs and Psychiatric Service dogs can be trained to perform to mitigate different disabilities. The list is probably more extensive than some people may be aware.

  24. Libby, this has nothing to do with the airlines and everything to do with DOT. Airlines do not want these unrestrained animals on their flights but DOT requires them to accept the animals. The best thing that anyone who is concerned can do is to contact DOT and express their concern. Ask for the rules to be made more stringent for animal travel.

  25. If there are any class action suits please add me to the list. I am allergic to dogs and had a terrible experience during my last flight. I contacted American Airlines and they insisted that there was nothing they could do.

  26. This trail of comments sads me. I do have a phobia to dogs and I got not one but two sat next to me. I had a panic attack ( embarrassing) and afterhaving país a fee for extra leg room I had to settle to sit next to the bathroom .
    I wrote a note when maxed my reservation, “dog allergies “ and I got two, not one next to me. I handle my phobia all my very long life, without invading other peoples’ spaces and/or confort . How unfair is this, I have no saying. Not waiting any longer for a class action suit, at least restrict the animals to some rows. I have two family members that are allergic to dog’s saliva. Acute anaphylactic reactions and have to carry epi pens all the time . How is it that because a person needs a therapy dog it’s ok to be on my space or blocking the isle or walking up and down .

  27. Please consider telling that to DOT. This is a huge burden to airlines, none of them want to have to allow this, DOT forces it on them.

    Also, making a note in your reservation, while the right thing to do, does not restrict others from choosing the seats near you. Check with the airline periodically to see if any animals have been seated near you. Check again when you arrive for your flight.

  28. I like having friendly dogs on planes and I’d suspect a lot of other people wouldn’t mind me bringing all 11 of my dogs, since 10 of them are clones of the 11th. (this is a true story and Gary knows it)

    Just because all you haters don’t have 10 copies of your dog is no reason to hate. But, haters gonna hate.

    Yep, they do all look almost exactly alike and are genetically identical, so if one of them bites you because, well, you deserve it, then I challenge you to prove which one it was.

    And yes, I need them ALL as ESA’s because, hey, I have to have my pack together or I have an anxiety attack. Imagine the worry if they were all in the animal hold!

  29. This raises an interesting question.

    Should people who are so emotionally unstable that they cannot fly without an animal actually be allowed to fly themselves?

    After all, in the event of an emergency evacuation you will be expected to leave your cabin baggage AND your pets behind.

    Can an emotionally unstable person be relied upon to do this and not impede the evacuation?

    I don’t think so.

    Given that most air accidents occur during landing and take off, at speeds which are survivable if restrained and that most fatalities are caused by the post crash fire the evacuation is critical to saving as many lives as possible.

    Evacuation may already be hampered by baggage and other debris, there may be smoke and or visible fire and visibility may already be low. Not to mention the disorientation of the collision and panicked travellers…

    The last thing you want to add to this mix is a panicked animal and its owner acting unpredictably.

    We shouldn’t be waiting for the first fatality as a result of animals in the cabin in order for common sense to previal.

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