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My First Class Seat Was Taken by an Emotional Support Animal

Aug. 13, 2019
6 min read
My First Class Seat Was Taken by an Emotional Support Animal
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I've certainly had some interesting experiences in the more than 200 flights I've flown since the start of 2018. But last week, something new happened when I boarded an American Airlines flight from Charlotte (CLT) to Atlanta (ATL): my first class seat had been taken by an emotional support animal. Here's the full story, as well as each US carrier's policy on emotional support animals sitting in passenger seats.

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I'd been working in the Admiral's Club prior to my flight, so I arrived at the gate about seven minutes after boarding was scheduled to begin. When I arrived, the gate area was empty and the screen displayed Group 9. So, I wasn't surprised to see a full first class cabin and a flight attendant distributing pre-departure beverages when I boarded. But, I was surprised to see a small dog occupying my seat.

The passenger sitting next to the dog — the dog's owner — was on his cellphone, so it took some time for me to catch his attention and convey that his dog was in my seat. He continued his cellphone conversation but slowly moved the dog to the ground and then into the aisle before turning his knees slightly so I could slide past him to 4F. Once I was in my seat, he relayed to the woman on the other end of his cellphone conversation that "Sully lost her window seat."

Based on its harness, the dog seemed to be traveling as an emotional support animal. The dog laid on the floor between our seats for the first half of the flight, which meant I had to be careful when I moved my legs or got items from my bag. The man held the dog in his lap for the second half of the short flight.

We could debate the merits of emotional support animals (ESAs) and whether this animal should even be considered an ESA. But disregarding that aspect, the issue here is that American Airlines has behavior guidelines for ESAs — yet this passenger ignored many of the outlined rules.

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I reached out to American Airlines regarding my experience. An American Airlines spokesperson confirmed that "an emotional support animal should never be on a passenger seat" and said that passengers traveling with an emotional support animal must "sign an animal behavior form agreeing to this." The spokesman also noted that ESAs that lie on the floor of the cabin must remain within "the foot space of the seat itself, regardless of cabin," meaning the animal should not lie in the area between two seats.

The American Airlines spokesperson noted if a passenger with an ESA doesn't follow the guidelines set by American, he or she "can either be removed from a flight or be denied boarding."

Now that we've clarified American's policy, here are the policies of all of the major US carriers regarding where emotional support animals should be while on board:

AirlineGuidance Regarding Where ESAs Should BeOn Seats?
Alaska AirlinesService animals or emotional support animals are expected to be seated on the floor space below a guest's seat or, if no larger than an infant, seated in the guest's lap, if needed to accommodate your disability.No, explicitly prohibited
Allegiant AirThe animal may only occupy the foot space of the disabled passenger and is prohibited from encroaching on the foot space of another passenger.No, explicitly prohibited
American AirlinesAnimal must remain at your feet, under your seat, or in your lap (lap animals must be smaller than a 2-year old child) for the entire flight.No, explicitly prohibited
Delta Air LinesService and support animals are expected to be seated in the floor space below a passenger’s seat or seated in a passenger’s lap.No, explicitly prohibited
Frontier AirlinesAn ESA 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).No, explicitly prohibited
Hawaiian AirlinesAnimals will need to remain on the floor.Not explicitly prohibited, but animals must remain on the floor
JetBlueAll animals must remain on the floor, unless the animal is small enough to fit fully on the customer's lap without touching any part of the seat or adjacent customers.No, explicitly prohibited
Southwest AirlinesIf 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).No, explicitly prohibited
Spirit AirlinesTrained service animals and emotional support animals can be placed on the aircraft floor or (provided the animal is no larger than a lap child and the seat does not have an inflatable seat belt) on the guest’s lap.No, explicitly prohibited
United AirlinesAn animal must sit at the customer's feet without protruding into the aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed to comply with safety regulations. Customers may elect to use an approved in-cabin kennel for smaller animals.Not explicitly prohibited, but the animal is expected to be seated in the floor space below your seat

So, what's the take-away? If you have an ESA, be aware of and follow the regulations set by the airline you are flying. And, if you don't have an ESA but come across one on a flight, knowing these policies can help you advocate for yourself if needed.

Flight attendants should be knowledgeable about these rules and ensure ESAs comply to the airline's guidelines, but they oftentimes have too many other tasks to handle — especially on short flights such as this one. So, you may need to speak up to ensure your flight experience — including your seat, foot space, underseat storage and access to power outlets — isn't unduly affected by a nearby ESA.

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All photos by the author.