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Carry-on Companion: Can your service bird join you on your next flight?

With proper documentation, domestic airlines allow emotional support animals – including birds – to accompany owners with disabilities.

Margaret Maffai

sun conure
Gifted Wings Ministry in Tulsa, Oklahoma 
Emotional support birds that meet certain criteria may be allowed to travel with their owners in the cabin.

Eventually, it happens to everyone if you fly often enough. The person sitting next to you with the window seat, sheltered from view of the flight attendants in the aisle has a little dog in a pet carrier under the seat and pulls it out to sit on her lap for some cuddle time during the flight.  Maybe the flight attendants politely tell her to put the puppy back in its carrier, maybe they turn a blind eye. You might think that if you reached under your seat and pulled your bird out of her travel carrier to snuggle with you during the flight you would certainly get a stern talking to. But in fact, on many domestic flights, birds helping their owners with depression, anxiety or other diagnosed mental or psychological disorders may be permitted to fly the friendly skies free of their carriers if they meet certain criteria. 

Know Your Rights
Domestic air travel is governed by the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which requires service animals and emotional support animals be permitted to accompany their owners in the cabin of the plane. The ACAA does not restrict emotional support animals to a particular species. Rather, domestic airlines will typically allow an animal in the cabin with proper documentation. This documentation will vary depending on the airline, but typically includes a letter issued within the past year, on letterhead from a licensed mental health professional stating:

  • that the passenger has a mental health-related disability listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV); 
  • that having the animal accompany the passenger is necessary to the passenger’s mental health or treatment; 
  • that the individual providing the assessment of the passenger is a licensed mental health professional and the passenger is under his or her care; 
  • the date, type, and jurisdiction of the mental health professional’s license.  

According to the ACAA, a service animal or emotional support animal "must be allowed to accompany the passenger unless it poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others or presents a significant threat of disruption to the airline service in the cabin.” Airlines make this call on a case-by-case basis and foreign airlines are only required to accept dogs. If your bird meets their criteria, however, most domestic airlines will try to be accommodating. Delta does not charge for service animals or emotional support animals that meet their requirements and are trained to behave in public.  American Airlines, which is joining with US Airways, noted that birds may be allowed to travel in the cabin on domestic flights provided they meet the requirements for service animals or emotional support animals. Reservations personnel suggested contacting them at least 48 hours before your flight in order to ensure your documentation is in order.  Some airlines require advance notice.

Sun conure
Gifted Wings Ministry in Tulsa, Oklahoma 
Physical contact with emotional support birds can be beneficial for people with disabilities or disorders.

Although it would be more common for birds to travel in the cabin under the seat, airlines recognize that some mental and psychological disabilities may require physical contact with an emotional support animal as a method of treatment.  Maureen Horton-Legere, co-founder of On A Wing & A Prayer, a pet-assisted therapy program that visits nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, says the opportunity to touch birds can have a powerful benefit.  

"When you have physical contact, there’s a big difference,” Horton-Legere explained.  "We would bring as many birds as possible and we would always ask ‘who wants to hold a bird?’ Sometimes people wouldn’t raise their hand but their neighbor would and they would reach over and pet the bird and the next time we asked, more and more hands would go up.”

Not only is the touch important, but the amount of trust between a person and a bird is too. "Humans are huge next to these tiny little birds, yet they trust to such a phenomenal degree,” Horton-Legere observes.  "Can you imagine what it feels like to be on the other side of that trust?  There is nothing that truly describes it.  When you put these creatures into folks’ hands, it takes their breath away.” 

Although emotional support birds accompanying their owners in the cabin during air travel will usually need to stay on the floor in a pet carrier, as with all assistance animals, airlines will try to strike a balance between accommodating the needs of the owner’s disability, the health and safety of the passengers, and the needs of the captain and flight crew.  Therefore, some airlines will allow birds to be kept on the owner’s lap if the owner’s disability requires contact with the bird.

On American Airlines, for example, according to reservations personnel, an assistance bird may travel on the owner’s lap, depending on its size, but the bird must be clean, quiet and well-behaved, and a bird harness may need to be used.  On their website, JetBlue advises that "Service animals typically should remain on the floor; however, if the animal is small and well-behaved, circumstances may permit the animal to remain in your lap during all stages of flight.”

However, Jet Blue cautions that "Birds that do not have their wings ‘clipped or pinioned’ may be refused carriage. The release of such animals in the aircraft could result in a direct threat to the health or safety of customers and crewmembers.”  Travelers should contact their specific airlines well ahead of time to learn about all applicable requirements and restrictions, and should check the laws at their destination and layovers.

Be Mindful Of Other Passengers
Some travelers are afraid of birds. Melissa, a Portland, Ore. traveler flying this week who was once attacked by a crow explains, "I am very panicky around birds because of that unpredictability.  I don’t know what they’re going to do or where they’re going to fly.”  This just goes to show, one person’s emotional support bird can be another person’s nightmare seatmate.  Melissa describes, "My heart rate goes up, I get flushed and extremely anxious, and I need to duck down and cover my head to protect myself so it can’t land on me.”  

An undiagnosed fear of birds does not carry the same legal protections as a disability, however.  So whereas an airline will try to accommodate all passengers, it should not refuse an emotional support animal because of the owner’s seatmate’s mere discomfort. 

Sun conure
Gifted Wings Ministry in Tulsa, Oklahoma 
Punkin, a sun conure and experienced therapy bird, provided physical contact, comfort, and companionship to help speed his owner’s recovery.
Air travel can be fraught with anxiety for anyone, but particularly for pet owners. In a 2013 survey, nearly three quarters of pet owner respondents reported worrying about their pets when traveling without them and nearly a third said they felt anxiety about leaving their pets behind.  Seventy-five percent of respondents do not trust airlines to take care of pets that have been checked in cargo. More than 45 percent of pet owners reported being unsatisfied with pet-friendly airline accommodations in the cargo/checked luggage compartment.  

Considering these feelings, it isn’t surprising that pet owners would want to keep their animals with them in the cabin of the airplane.  But for some travelers, keeping their animals with them is more than just a matter of the usual worry about how their pet is faring in the luggage compartment or at the kennel back at home.  For those with diagnosed mental and psychological disorders for whom keeping their animal with them is actually doctor’s orders, the airlines will listen to their needs and should accommodate them within the bounds of the law.

Want to learn more about bird service animals and other bird legal issues?

Long-lived Birds: 7 Easy Dos and Don’ts for Planning for the Future
Therapy Birds: "Emotional Support Animal” Or Merely a Pet?

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Posted: November 4, 2014, 1:30 p.m. PDT

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Carry-on Companion: Can your service bird join you on your next flight?

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Reader Comments
janet, henderson, NV
Posted: 9/23/2015 9:06:46 PM
Danelle, Thanks for reading and commenting! You make some really great points. There are indeed unfortunately individuals who try to take advantage of accommodations intended for those with diagnosed disorders, but compassion should be the name of the game all around, so it is a shame anybody thinks that means they have to harass or question your friend about her dog! My interest in writing about this issue came from a number of comments I saw from readers on other articles about air travel with birds, where owners with illnesses or disabilities expressed despair about not being able to bring their birds on trips (and even being unable to travel at all) because they did not believe certain airlines accepted birds. I hoped that by explaining that the rules for ESAs on airplanes are broader than for service animals in other areas of the law (such as under the Americans with Disabilities Act), readers who DO meet the criteria might have a better idea of when emotional support birds could be allowed on airplanes. Of course the airline criteria requires proper documentation, including a letter from a medical professional, to ensure the birds in question are bona fide ESAs. Thanks again for sharing your perspective!
Margaret, Redmond, OR
Posted: 11/13/2014 3:21:02 PM
I have a slight issue with this article. None of the information is untrue, but the way it's presented alludes that anyone can get their bird listed as an emotional support pet just to take it on a plane out of the carrier. I fly with my umbrella cockatoo and I've had people ask my why I haven't done this. I don't NEED an emotional support animal. The reason these things exist is so that individuals with mental disabilities can live a more normal life. It's not so that you can have your bird fly for free on your shoulder. I know of people who have taken advantage of this with their pets, and that's not what it's there for. I also have a friend with a service dog, and she gets harassed quite frequently about being in public places, what the dog is used for, what's "wrong with her" that she needs the dog - the reason this happens is because of the people who use these programs as a convience instead of out of need. Please don't be someone who gives service animals and ESAs a bad name, because you make it more difficult for the people who legitimately need them.
Danelle, NY, NY
Posted: 11/12/2014 6:06:05 AM
A Parrot back in my life would be so wonderful. The love between me and my umbrella cockatoo was obvious. It was one of the best times in my life. Sadly he was stolen. I was calme and interacted with more people in a day than I do in a month now. A day doesn't go by that I don't miss Fred
Peter, Jensen Beach, FL
Posted: 11/10/2014 11:40:32 PM
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