U.S. Markets closed

The New Rules of Flying With Your Pet

Barbara Peterson

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

If you’re thinking of taking a pet along on your next flight, be prepared. This summer you’ll face new restrictions on flying with animals.

Over the past six months, major airlines in the U.S. have tightened their policies on both pets and service animals following a rash of in-flight disturbances.

In one incident, a passenger on a Delta Air Lines jet was bitten by another traveler’s comfort dog, prompting the airline to slap on new limits and ban some breeds altogether. Other episodes that became tabloid fodder featured exotic species such as peacocks, potbellied pigs, and, in one case, a snake that a passenger claimed as an emotional-support animal.

All this led more airlines to expand their lists of banned beasts.

But the new restrictions don’t mean you should leave Fido at home or in a kennel just because your vacation includes a plane trip. More than 1 million pets (mostly dogs and cats) fly with their owners in the U.S. every year, usually without incident.

“The vast majority of animals brought onboard are well-behaved,” says Charles Hobart, a United Airlines spokesman who estimates that the airline carries roughly 160,000 pets and nearly 200,000 service and emotional support animals every year.

Things to consider before deciding whether to fly with your pet include the cost—around $250 round-trip on most lines—and the rigors and stress an airline trip can inflict on your pooch.

“You know your pet better than we do, and you need to take into account that pet’s personality,” Hobart says.

And be aware that airports and planes will be more crowded than ever this summer. The airline industry is predicting that a record 2.8 million passengers will board planes daily from June through August, up 3.4 percent from last year. One tip: Book early because airlines limit the number of animals allowed on each flight. 

Here’s what you need to know to ensure a smooth flight with your four-legged friend.

Creature Categories Matter

There are two types of animals permitted to accompany owners onto the plane, and the expense varies. For household pets, like dogs and cats, there’s a fee, which starts at $75 one-way on Frontier, rising to $125 one-way on most major airlines (except for Alaska and Southwest, which charge $100 and $95, respectively).

Effectively, a pet like this is regarded as a carry-on item, and as such, must be small enough to fit in an approved carry-on case that can be placed under the seat in front of you. (Each airline spells out these rules in detail on its website.)

Service and comfort animals are governed by stricter rules. According to the Department of Transportation’s guidelines, a service animal is one that’s “individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability” or any animal that assists someone with a disability by providing emotional support.

Under law, airlines must allow someone with a disability to fly with his or her service animal at no charge. However, some airlines ask for documentation from a physician showing that the passenger’s disability requires animal support.

Check for New Exclusions

Though the shift in airline animal policies is nearly universal, each airline has its own rules, so check with its website or call the carrier directly. If you’re traveling with a house pet that isn’t a cat or dog, you’ll need to ask. United, for example, permits rabbits and some birds in the passenger cabin, but it no longer accepts ferrets to accompany owners onboard.

The biggest changes have been to policies on emotional-support animals. Most airlines distinguish between service animals, such as guide dogs, which are trained to assist people with specific disabilities, and emotional-support or comfort animals, which have been more loosely defined—hence the influx on Instagram of beasts sauntering through airport security.

The rules vary slightly among airlines, but all carriers now require passengers flying with a comfort animal to notify the airline at least 48 hours in advance and provide a note from a medical or mental health professional, plus certificates from a veterinarian to confirm that vaccinations are up to date.

The added red tape is, in part, a response to concerns that some passengers were passing off pets as support animals to dodge the carry-on fee.

Most airlines are now limiting either type of animal companion to dogs and cats. For service animals only, trained miniature horses are also allowed.

Delta, which notes that it has seen a sharp rise in the number of support animals—up 150 percent in just one year—says that stricter rules were necessary, citing an 84 percent rise in incidents involving pets misbehaving. It also now refuses all emotional-support animals on flights longer than 8 hours, and it has banned any animals younger than 4 months old from flying in the cabin. And it specifically excludes what it calls “pit bull type” dogs.

Cargo-Class Considerations

If a pet is too large to travel in the plane or can’t be in the cabin for other reasons (tropical fish being one example), it will have to ride in the baggage hold.

It will need the right container or crate. But some airlines go a step further and require large dogs and some other animals to fly as air cargo. That means that when you arrive, you’ll need to retrieve your pet from the cargo area of the airport, not from the regular passenger baggage area.

This service can be expensive. It’s pegged to the weight and size of the animal and can run several hundred dollars each way. The website PetTravel.com has a list of what all airlines charge.

Also, pets traveling in the hold are subject to some additional risks. For instance, weather can be a concern. Some airlines will not accept animals for travel on days when the outside temperature is higher than 85° F.

Airport Amenities for Animals

All U.S. airports that handle more than 10,000 passengers a year are now required by law to offer a “pet relief” area—usually one per terminal.

According to the American Kennel Club, which has a list of top pet-friendly airports, these can vary in size and scope.

At Terminal 4 of New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, for example, there’s a pet “restroom”—right next to a regular human one. Next door at Terminal 5, JetBlue has a “Wooftop” deck that doubles as an outdoor patio—complete with views of the city skyline.



More from Consumer Reports:
Top pick tires for 2016
Best used cars for $25,000 and less
7 best mattresses for couples

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.