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Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals - Understanding the Differences

Date: February 2, 2018

MEC Safety, Health & Security Committee

United's recently announced changes to the company’s Emotional Support Animal (ESA) policy begins March 1, 2018.  In order to fully understand this change, it is important to point out the distinctions between Service Animals and Emotional Support animals. While Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are currently considered as a category under Service Animals in our eFAOM, United will now be expanding its existing policy regarding ESAs and we anticipate seeing new restrictions and requirements in the next revision of our eFAOM.

As outlined in our  eFAOM, (SOP-Customer with disabilities) Service animals assist a person with a disability or provide support. Common terms used for service animals or the functions they perform include: assistance animals, hearing/seeing eye dog, signal animal, seizure alert, psychiatric service, emotional support, and comfort animal.

Service Animals

  • Within current guidelines, Flight Attendants may see an unlimited number of service animals on any given flight. 
  • These animals may accompany a customer with a disability in any seat in which the customer is seated, unless the animal(s) obstruct an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation or to comply with FAA regulations. 
  • The animal(s) must fit within the seat/floor area belonging to the customer with the disability (e.g., lap, under the seat in front of them, floor area), and should not protrude into the main aisle. 
  • Service animals are not required to travel in a kennel and may accompany the customer anywhere in their allocated seat space. 
  • Service animals are not permitted in an exit row. The customer is most often offered a bulkhead seat, though not required, to maximize comfort. 

Additional Requirements for Emotional Support Animals

Current policy requires customers with ESAs to provide a 48 hour notice to the Accessibility Desk and a letter from a mental health professional.  Starting March 1, 2018, United’s policy has been amended to require the customer to provide the following additional documentation:

  • Confirmation the animal has been trained to behave properly in a public setting and acknowledge responsibility for the animal’s behavior.
  • A health & vaccination form signed by the animal’s veterinarian.  The veterinarian must also affirm that there is no reason to believe the animal will pose a direct threat to the health & safety of other or create a disruption in service.

Regardless of the type of service animal, all animals on the aircraft should be noted on the Inflight Final Report (IFR) or the My Flight app. Notify the Customer Service Representative (CSR) of this discrepancy if still at the gate. If in-flight, notify the lead/purser and pilots. 


As a reminder, Flight Attendants are not required to verify, nor should they ask about, the legitimacy of a service or emotional support animal. If a question or an unusual situation arises at the gate, contact the Customer Service Representative (CSR).

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