Dogs – not snakes – on planes

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk

On a recent trip that involved too much time in airports, I became mesmerized with the number of dogs traveling with owners.


The interest hit me when, on a small regional plane out of Knoxville, there were three dogs on the flight. Considering the plane probably sat only a hundred people, that seemed like a lot to me.

We flew to Midway airport in Chicago and had about a two hour layover. In those two hours, in one corridor with about 10 gates for one airline, I counted 31 dogs traveling with owners. When we boarded the new plane, we had four dogs on board.

A few of the dogs we saw in the airport were in their carriers. Most were not. They were on leashes and walking freely with their owners. One traveler had a double stroller with her two dogs getting a ride in the stroller, which she checked at the gate and carried the two dogs onto the plane.

Once on the plane, the dogs on our flight either sat in the owners’ laps or nestled in the small space at their feet. One woman with a yellow lab asked a passenger sitting in the bulkhead – where there is more leg room – if he would switch seats with her (she was behind him) so her dog could lay at her feet. I was amazed that he agreed.

So, what’s going on with all the dogs-on-planes?

The difference is that airlines now offer Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) the same benefits as Service Animals. What that means is that they don’t have to fly in the cargo hold – where family pets used to have to travel – and, they fly for free with a paying adult.

Briefly, to be certified as a Service Dog, the dog undergoes lengthy training to aid an owner with a disability such as sight-limited or physically-limited people and people with diagnosed emotional issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

ESAs aren’t considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They can be untrained and provide benefit simply from companionship. You can get certification online for your dog if he/she provides you with emotional support from general anxiety, depression, panic disorders, separation anxiety, mood disorders, fears and phobias, seasonal affective disorder or stress.

So, pretty much every dog in the world.

Except for people with severe allergies, there doesn’t seem to be much complaining about dogs on planes. A lot of passengers say they will take a dog over a crying baby any day. While I have personally never had a bad experience with a dog on a plane, there are a lot of stories out there.

The flight attendant at the gate where I was sitting, for example, was telling the cleaner waiting for the plane to arrive so he could go on board and do the turn-around to “be happy you were off yesterday.”

She said, “We had a poop incident with one of the dogs on board. It was a golden retriever, and he evidently got scared, let it go in the aisle and then turned around and tried to run back, stepped in it and spread it everywhere. When we opened the door to that plane, everyone was gagging.”

A Delta report in 2018 said the airline carried about 700 emotional support animals and service dogs on flights each day. In 2016, that number was 450.

Some airlines have tried to make traveling with ESAs a little harder by requiring documentation from veterinarians that the ESA is healthy and trained to behave properly. Some airlines require a letter from a mental-health professional certifying the passenger’s need for an ESA. If you don’t get the necessary paperwork, it doesn’t mean your pet can’t fly. It just can’t fly for free.

Most airlines are just riding the tide and trying to keep customers happy. While the number of ESA traveling is increasing every year, so is the number of passengers willing to pay pet fees.

Pet Relief Room at the St. Louis airport

Airports are also learning to accommodate an increased number of dogs. Some require “pets” to be in carriers, but that doesn’t apply to Service Animals or ESAs. And what if a dog has to “go?” Going back outside and then back through security is not a good option.

What I saw on our return trip to Knoxville when we went through the St. Louis airport answered that question, too. A Pet Relief Center (pictured here), complete with fire hydrant!

Travel on, Rover!

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