Everything You Need to Know When Flying with an ESA


I flew with Willo as my Emotional Support Animal for the first time this September, and there were a lot of things I wish I had known before getting to the airport. It was a fairly easy process, and everyone was friendly, but sometimes it’s nice to know exactly what to expect.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my experience and how exactly Willo got to sit with me on the plane, so I wanted to share that with everyone in detail. Here’s everything you need to know when flying with an ESA:

Getting ESA Documentation from a Mental Health Professional

We flew with Southwest, which I would recommend when flying with your dog whether they’re an ESA or not. They are one of the most pet-friendly airlines out there right now and they were very accommodating. They require you to have documentation for your emotional support animal in the form of a doctor’s letter, no more than one-year-old on the date of travel, on letterhead from the licensed mental health professional or medical doctor who is treating your mental health-related disability. The letter must state the following:

  1. The Passenger has a mental or emotional disability recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

  2. The Passenger needs the emotional support dog or cat as an accommodation for air travel and/or for activity at the Passenger's destination

  3. The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional or medical doctor, and the Passenger is under his or her professional care AND

  4. The date and type of mental health professional's or medical doctor's license and the state or other jurisdiction in which it was issued

This letter is free from your doctor. I wouldn’t advise paying a company online to generate this letter for you, as it may not actually work, and they’re going to charge you for it.

Informing the Airline that you’re Bringing a Dog

You can inform the airline that you will be bringing a pet when you’re booking your ticket. On Southwest Airlines, you can just click the “special assistance” link and then check the box that says emotional support animal.

If you’ve already booked your flight, you can still go into your reservation and click the special assistance link and check that you'll be bringing an ESA.

Check-in with your Pet in the Southwest Full-service Line

When you get to the airport on the day of your flight, go to the full-service line at the ticket counter. In my experience, this line is always shorter. In this line, you will hand the airline employee your documentation letter and your ID, and they will verify your need for an ESA. You may also ask them for priority boarding if you believe you will need it. This allows you and one other person to board first with your pet. I also checked a bag for Willo because Southwest allows you to check two bags for free, and Willo had too much stuff to fit it all in my bag. Just remember to keep a few things in your carry on to keep your dog busy on the plane.

Going Through Security with a Dog

Going through security made me a little anxious. It’s already stressful trying to move quickly while taking off your shoes, belts, and jewelry, putting your laptop in a separate container and then getting your other bags on the conveyor belt. Add having to worry about your dog and all of her items and you have a recipe for disaster. Luckily, everything turned out fine and I was stressed out for nothing.

If you get to security and there’s a long line, ask if you can enter the express line with your dog. We did that in Portland and got to skip what was probably a 30-minute wait. It was a real perk.

I also worried about going through the x-ray machine. I didn’t know if I would have to take willo’s leash and harness off, and if so, what would I do with her? At the Phoenix airport, they let Willo stay on her leash and she walked through before me. In Portland, I took everything off of her and carried her through. At both airports, they also tested my hands with a cotton cloth. All-in-all it was easier than I expected.

Pet Relief Areas in the Airport

After you go through security, be on the lookout for your gate’s pet relief area so you can take your pet to go potty. They’re usually small, and they smell, but it’s really nice that airports have them now.

Willo had an incident while we were making our way to the pet relief area… she started squatting and I yelled for my sister to pick her up and start running towards the place where she could potty. Willo didn’t fully make it, but for the most part we got her there on time. Try to avoid accidents as diligently as possible, because the airlines do not like that.

Boarding the Plane with a Dog

With priority boarding, we got to be in the first group to board the plane. We opted for the front row because there would be more room for Willo on the floor, although Willo sat on my lap the majority of the flight. If you decide to sit in the front row, just keep in mind that all of your belongings have to be in the overhead bin during takeoff and landing (no, this does not include your dog.)

Willo was really good during the flight. She didn’t seem to be bothered by the takeoff or the landing at all. I would recommend bringing some chewy treats like bully sticks to keep your pup busy and to help their ears if they pop.

Dog Plane Etiquette

Of course, your pet must be well-behaved and must not be disruptive on the flight. There are also a few other guidelines Southwest has for emotional support animals:

  • An emotional support animal must be in a carrier that can be stowed under the seat in front of the Customer or on a leash at all times while in the airport and onboard.

  • A customer traveling with an emotional support animal cannot sit in an emergency exit seat.

  • The emotional support animal and/or carrier can not obstruct passengers’ walkway

  • If a Customer opts to carry his/her emotional support animal in a pet carrier, the carrier must be properly stowed for taxi, takeoff, and landing under the seat in front of the Customer’s seat.

  • A leashed animal can be placed on the aircraft floor or on the Customer’s lap (provided the animal is no larger than a child under the age of two).

Animals must not:

  • Extend into the aircraft aisle

  • Occupy an aircraft seat

  • Occupy a tray table

  • Extend beyond the footprint of the Customer’s seat

What to Bring on the Plane for Your Dog

I brought Willo a blanket for comfort, a water bottle, treats, some CBD oil, and that’s about it! I gave her a drop or two of CBD oil on a mini Milk Bone treat before we left, and then again before we boarded the plane, and it really mellowed her out. Willo slept a lot and our flight was short so we didn’t need much.

Here is a list of some of the things you should have if you’re taking your dog on a plane:

If I missed anything, or if you have any other questions, please ask away in the comments!

TravelDevon NoehringComment