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. Until we create a system that forces all service animals to be registered (perhaps similar to a handicap parking permit), people will abuse the system to avoid paying pet fees or checking pets. Sadly, this has real impacts on people who legitimately need service animal support who now gain the derision of the flying public because others who think rules don’t apply to them.

  2. Personally, I’m more concerned that we are allowing all these mentally ill people to have pets. That can’t be the best life for them.

  3. I fly about once a month and have noticed the increasing # and size of “support” animals. I recollect an extensive BP research of air crashes (survivor accounts) that exposed the horrific degree of panic, failure to follow FA instructions, pileups at the emergency exits, people who simply froze in place, etc. Since there was no mention of “support” animals, I assume those flights did not have survivors (?) I shudder to think of a scene where owners of “support” animals in a frightening, smoke filled cabin of panicked passengers), are relied on to respond responsibly.

  4. “registered”

    If it is unsafe to block egress points on an aircraft, how does it become safe after you “register” the item blocking those egress points?

  5. How about offer pet-friendly flights? Currently there are no viable options for large dog owners other than legitimately applying for an ESA letter. The system is abused because the alternatives are much more expensive, logistically nightmarish, and can be risky for the animal. Just look at Gary’s prior posts on pets getting lost, etc.

    That being said, owners should be respectful of those around them and of course keep their animals out of the aisle.

  6. Lol. Murican stupidity at best.

    Out of concern for some snowflake needing animal(s), effectively ignoring safety and comfort of human passenger, on which the plane was built. The chair is for human, not animal(s).

    More ridiculous is statement trying to justify passing a PET as an ESA because of expensive cost. Well, if you can’t pay, don’t use the plane. Take a bus. Get on a ship. Just because you are poor and loves your dog, doesn’t mean all human passenger must accept the possible risk your animal running amok, especially in emergency. It happened on United flight, passenger mauled by dog.

    What a selfish bast***……

  7. James,

    You really think the need for having animals on a plane breaks down ideological lines? That’s nuts…

    Not that I like seeing all these animals in the cabin…for safety reasons. But this isn’t a political issue so leave politics out of it.

  8. Nothing will change until someone is attacked or has an anaphylactic reaction to a pet (yes this happens, esp with cats). My friend was on a flight recently that had an emotional support chicken. Yes for real.

  9. When government creates special protected and favored classes of people (ADA), it is human nature to try to game the system by becoming part of that protected group. ADA is just one of a number of well-intentioned ideas that have become sources of government sanctioned abuse.

    However, imagine the torrents of public anger that would be thrown to any legislator that tried to reform and rein in the abuses of ADA. Cruel, heartless, mean…the list of adjectives would be endless.

  10. If you apply for ESA, answer everything honestly, and are approved, then are you gaming the system?

  11. Now let’s say you only thought to apply for ESA because the current airline options for large dogs are atrocious. Then are you gaming the system?

    Create better alternatives for animal owners and you’ll see less people seeking the ESA certification.

  12. How about just ban animals period? No reason that dogs who assist truly handicapped (i.e. visually impaired) can’t be flown in the hold and then brought up with the strollers. It isn’t as if a blind person can (or needs) to be led up the aisle to the lav by his dog, not to mention that the lavs are rarely sizeable enough to accommodate a german sheppard.

    It’s a shame the fakers have to ruin things for those who are physically disabled, but it is time to put and end to the nonsense. Hopefully people will start filing DOT safety complaints as that may be the only way to spur action.

  13. @ATX Joe
    Not gaming. CHEATING.

    Rules are there for a reason, including safety and comfort of paid passenger. You cannot comply, take a bus. Board a ship.

    Who are you to demand a creation of alternatives just to satisfy your selfish needs?


  14. If only there was an option for affordable. pet-friendly flights where they’re safely kept away from others, and we can do away with this charade of “emotional support pets” that people game in order to be able to travel with their animals. Pets shouldn’t be allowed to stay in laps or aisles since it is such a safety hazard. And if you can’t part with your pet, stay home or drive!

  15. Gary, every week you will aim to “service animal” to compliant. what’s wrong with you.

  16. Agree with all the angry trolls on here. Animals and children should ride in the cargo hold….and for a fee.

  17. Laura….this is a great post. Did the chicken lay an egg?? Sorry, I am laughing so much, I couldn’t resist. I know chickens have personalities…..but generally they are quite independent and don’t give a lot of emotional support. Maybe the chicken needed the emotional support. I am looking forward to a flight with a rooster. I will post here when it happens. You have made my day !

  18. The abuse of “support animals” status is rampant. There is no national or local standard re qualification, licensing, and certification for “service animals.” There needs to be. Anyone can buy a “service animal” vest for the pet and claim status. I am an attorney in the Law Department of a major retailer. We were recently sued because store security told a customer entering the store with a dog which bore no “service” identification, that no animals, other than “service animals” were allowed in the store. The customer had no paperwork which confirmed that the animal was a “service animal,” and the customer was therefore escorted out of the store. The customer thereafter filed suit and produced a medical record indicating that he was transgender, and that he would benefit from a pet. The dog was thereby qualified as a “service animal.” Pets do provide emotional and physical benefits, but the vast majority of people somehow manage to get through the day without their pet being at their side at all times. Those that are truly handicapped can not. My friend’s daughter got her Dr. to write a note that she needs the emotional support of her dog. So the dog flies free in the cabin on flights. But the same girl manages to get through a ten hour day in the office without the emotional support the dog provides. There needs to be national licensing, standards and certification. The airlines are losing money because of the fraudulent actions of people. No free carry on, but the pet travels for free. I have no objection to pets in the cabin, particularly in light of horror stores re animals who died in the cargo hold or escaped. But only those who are truly “service animals” should be exempt from a charge. I hope Karma catches up to these people…and that they come to know what really being handicapped is!

  19. People with asthma and pet hair allergies may die in flight because of “emotional support” animals that some entitled passengers bring on board. They want to avoid paying the expense of transport and do not care about other passengers around them. Not everyone should be forced to like animals or sit next to them. We see very large dogs on flights form LAX to HNL on regular basis. They smell and I am sure many have flees because we experienced “crawling” bugs all over us and itching while being seated in front cabin along with these animals at the foot of their owners. We are not able to have our computer bag at our feet during take off and landing but these large dogs can stay there? There have to be strong guidelines and enforcement. Animals do not belong inside a cabin with humans. We need to get more consideration from the airlines. This double standard for pet privileged owners has to stop and be addressed. We are pet owners and would never fly our dogs in passenger cabin. They stay at home where they are much more comfortable and happy without annoying others.

  20. The problem is with fake ESA animals. People who go online pay $60 to sit with a therapist on Skype for 30 minutes to an hour just so they can have a letter to have an ESA. This should be illegal they are falsely writing a prescription because I don’t feel like they are creating enough of a Dr. Patient relationship. The letters should be required to be written by a local Dr to where the patient lives. And at the time of booking they should state the have an ESA and provided the Dr.’s info for verification

  21. Putting animals in the hold is cruel and risky. There is no reason why the airlines can’t make flights more pet friendly by allowing those who buy a seat for a pet to fly. Or perhaps a row of three seats if he dog is big. Then the airline must enforce the rules of no pets in the aisle. If need be, dogs can wear muzzles. Even making some flights pet friendly would be helpful. People want to travel with their pets.

  22. Wow such hateful comments, not one person who sees the need for these animals to their LEGIT owners. As a nurse I see many people with “mental silliness” who need them as anxiety or pstd . wouldn’t flying be the need to have their ESA with if they have these issues!? Not all are “cheap” just looking for free airline trips for their dogs!! Shm shame on you haters! God forbid you ever need help of any kind or your family!!

  23. Maybe the answer is to let animals and children ride cargo for FREE so they are encouraged to not bother others.

  24. why not make all flight pet free and ESA free, as others have said if they are they are that screwed up we do not need them there is shit happens, we sure as hell do not need their stupid animals flying around if there is a problem.

    the rest of the world is laughing at us because we are stupid for allowing stupid stuff like this to go on, everyone here needs to write the congressman and senators as I have and let them know how they feel. use bullet points, FAA and flight rules and real life problems like the delta flight as examples.

    only after they start getting letters and emails will they take action or force the FAA to set down some hard enforced rules, like pet and ESA free flights

  25. Another way to put a stop to this nonsense would be to charge a full adult fare for each animal brought on board, with the exception of genuine seeing eye dogs. No reduced fares, no seat, just pay to stand. My guess is that most of the owners would cease to become so emotionally needy. Indeed they would become more devoted to the George Washingtons in their pocket than the dog they had to pay the airline to fly with them.

  26. Aaron K says:
    July 10, 2017 at 8:24 am
    Personally, I’m more concerned that we are allowing all these mentally ill people to have pets. That can’t be the best life for them.

    For them? Do you mean the service animal or the person?
    But more to the point, why are you assuming service animals are only for mentally ill people, like you?

  27. @James

    If you obtain a legitimate ESA certification then you are cheating? Obtaining a legitimate ESA certification does follow the rules.

    -If your animal has fleas then you shouldn’t fly with your ESA as this would obviously harm others.
    -If your animal has aggression issues then you shouldn’t fly with your ESA, unless perhaps muzzled.
    -If you can’t keep your animal out of the aisle then you shouldn’t fly with your ESA.

    For anyone who does have a legitimate ESA and plans to fly, get ready to be judged by a handful of entitled passengers. Most travelers are totally supportive.

  28. What @Charlie Whiskey said. Though a genuine dog lover myself I cannot believe you guys have got yourselves into a situation where there could be 10 dogs on the same flight. I’m sorry that is simply a safety risk. To everyone – including the dogs (or chickens). I can’t believe I had to type that last sentence.

  29. I have a registered service dog. Not an emotional support animal. I fly with said dog. I can’t drive/sit in cars long distances with my disability. I make sure the plane has appropriate accommodations available for the flight and keep the dog out f the aisle. My dog does not growl, does not bite or has ever bitten. This is the problem. People get aggressive or house pets and make them emotional support animals. If they are aggressive to other animals of any type at time or any human, then chances are that this animal will strike out in stress. ESA guidelines even go through this. But people who are in control of it, ignore the warnings for their own gain. My daughter has has a cat. Yes, a CAT! She wass bipolar PTSD at the tender age in her early pre-teens. And anyone can who knows this mood disorder, knows it can go off like an explosion at anytime. This cat is necessary. He stays in a travel bag on planes, though. This is for his safety. Not any one else’s.

  30. @Marcia Keiser
    You would be a fool to lose the case. The medical record and/or identification and/or paperworks stating the requirement for such animal is not present when she/he entered the store. No evidence = no entry. Simple.

  31. @ATX Joe
    Are you an IDIOT? Too many people obtained a legitimate ESA certificate admitting they just plain CHEAP to pay the fares. Maybe people like you do need a special animal. Like donkey… to share thoughts….

  32. @James

    I’m saying quite the opposite. Right now ESA is the only way for an animal to join the owner in the cabin. Putting an animal in the cargo hold risks their life and I believe that’s what’s driving people to explore whether they qualify for ESA. If airlines allowed passengers to pay a full fare for their animal to join them in the cabin then I believe you’d see far less ESAs and more paid travelers.

    There will always be a handful of bitter and insufferable people on flights and otherwise.

  33. I would venture to say there are a lot more people with severe allergies to dogs and/or cats then people who require ESA animals. Whose need is more important?

  34. With few exceptions you guys are HORRIBLE. Snowflakes? Mentally ill? Sillies? Your collective lack of empathy may explain why traveling is so uncomfortable. As a person that has recently needed an Emotional Support Animal, may I say, who are you to judge me? You have not walked (or flown) a mile in my shoes. Luckily, I have not flown with any of you intolerant jerks. People have been mainly lovely.

    Do people abuse the system? Probably. Are some animal owners discourteous? Definitely. I think the UK rules are sensible but until they are the law of our land, may I invite you louts to take a good look at yourselves and be humbled and grateful since you obviously have never needed any assistance for anything.

    To the person who was on a flight with “10 dogs”, I fly American and they limit the number of animals per flight. That makes sense. On American, all ESA animals need to be pre-registered before a flight. As for safety, please! Do you think babies wouldn’t be in the way in an emergency? I know flying is frustrating. I know people like to let off steam in anonymous comment sections, but I invite you all to show kindness for people like myself who are going through some really heavy stuff. You may need the kindness returned some day.

  35. I like what Charlie Whiskey posted. BA’s approach to service animals on flights are clear and fair.

    We had to fly with our hound and he traveled in cargo with no problem, as he is a calm, trained dog.

    For those who require “emotional assistance pets” (vs accredited service animals) I suggest their animals travel in the hold as well, and for that flyer who depends on it to reduce any anxiety, their physician can prescribe a mild sedative sufficient for the flight duration.

  36. Some of these comments are pretty ignorant. Honestly I think ALL animals are emotional support animals I mean that’s basically the reason that we get them. Airlines should just make it easier and free for everyone to bring their animals.

  37. 1. It seems to me that somehow all these folks with crippling emotional issues managed to get safely from point A to point B for decades without bringing livestock aboard the planes. What changed?

    2. Some airlines won’t even hand out peanuts any more for fear that one person on the plane MIGHT have a peanut allergy. Yet folks with allergies to cats, dogs, or chickens just have to suck it up, I guess. Never mind the diseases that various animals can routinely carry.

    3. I have a dog. We love our dog. Our dog is probably the best dog in the whole world. SERIOUSLY. But I don’t love other peoples’ dogs, and I can fully understand why other people wouldn’t want my dog crowding their very limited space during a flight. Dogs smell, they have bad breath, the drool, they shed, they poop, they pee. They have fleas. And they might bark or bite. It just seems extremely selfish for anyone to bring an animal into an airline cabin, with the exception of legitimate, TRAINED service dogs.

    4. It seems much of this could be avoided if the airlines would make more of an effort to ensure that pets could be transported safely in the cargo hold of their planes, for a reasonable fee. I think folks would gladly pay $100 if they could be confident that the cargo hold was a safe place for their pets. Sadly, the airlines don’t seem too eager to provide this service. Must be more cost efficient for them to have livestock in the aisles of the main cabin. Gross.

  38. Noah, to your point about registered handicap parking permits – I known and observe many drivers that don’t physically (or emotionally) need them. All it takes in CA is a note from your doctor (say you break a bone or have surgery). Then you can keep the registered permit for a small annual fee.

  39. This is now a safety issue. Keep your pets at home or don’t fly. Period. Airlines need to step up. Oh, no. They’ll wait until there is a horrific disaster where dozens of people perish because they can’t get off the plane because of these inconsiderate, cheap passengers who have people issues. If they spent a fraction of their attention developing human relationships, they wouldn’t be so self reliant on animals. But I guess, once again, that is easier–animals can’t talk back.

    And animal lovers–spare me your BS.

  40. My wife is legally blind and has a “seeing eye” dog from Leader Dogs for the Blind.
    The dog was trained for 18 months at their 85 year old school and then given to my wife after she lived at the school for a month to be trained to work as a team.
    This is a “legitimate” service animal that provides a service, meeting the ADA guidelines.
    ESA dogs do not meet the ADA guidelines as they do nothing– do not provide a service.
    They are not service dogs and should be dealt with under a separate policy than legitimate Service Dogs.
    Our dog doesn’t bark, stays in the foot area of our seats, minds every command, and is less unruly that most of the passengers. He weights 80 lbs. Black lab.

  41. @ Aaron K.
    When did you get your M.D.? Don’t you realize people who may need an emotional support are every interactive with the public. Lawyers, doctors. actors, Child care workers, teachers. You sound so ignorant about this topic. I am embarrassed cor you. GO READ A BOOK!

  42. @ Shirley
    I have a letter saying I was prescribed an emotional support dog and it’s legitimate. There are 10’s of thousands in this category and we are and will continue to fly with our Eva’s. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  43. @Shirley
    That kind of creature that I refer as snowflake. Their appearance similiar to human. But somehow due to their stupidty and selfishness beyond control, they gladly sacrifice safety and comfort of human for their own little pleasure. A pleasure they get from an animal.

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