How It All Began
I remember the exact moment I began to dread flying. I was 12 years old and on an Atlanta-bound flight with my family. There was horrible turbulence and while it wasn’t the first time I experienced something like that on a plane, it scarred me for life for whatever reason.
Flying is such a privilege so I don’t like to complain about my fear, but over 13 years later, I still hate getting on a plane. It’s come to the point where I don’t want to be in an airport, pack my bag or even plan a trip that involves flying. I start worrying about the flight days in advance, particularly when it involves multiple stops.
Over the last few years, I started developing panic attacks in my day-to-day life. Of course, that also meant I began getting them on planes. The closed spaces, the heights, the germs and the lack of being in control made any plane a death trap for me. And I can’t handle it if the temperature inside the plane is too warm.
I’ve honestly thought about getting my pilot’s license just so I can understand how everything works on a plane. I also have a list of flying documentaries I want to watch (I can do a separate post on those if you guys are interested). Once I know what the different sounds and movements mean, I might be a more competent flyer. I just can’t comprehend how a gigantic piece of metal can fly 40,000 feet in the air at 400 MPH. It doesn’t make sense to my brain!
I realized I had to do something to alleviate at least some of my flight issues. After all, I have a need for wanderlust and don’t want to let a plane flight get in the way of experiencing the vast cultures and beautiful places to world has to offer.
Tucker’s New Job
When I got Tucker over 3 years ago in May of 2014, I never thought he would become my security blanket. I wanted a dog because I was ready for a furbaby and because I wanted to give one a good home. I didn’t think he would have any positive bearing on my anxiety.
Yes, he is still incredibly energetic and crazy most of the time. He can really wear me out some days, but something interesting happened when I took him on a plane for the first time.
If you have a dog and experience any type of anxiety, then you’ve probably noticed how petting your dog (or any animal for that matter) can be therapeutic. There’s something about it that can provide relief. It keeps your hands busy and your mind focused on something cuddly and cute.
It was suggested that I try using Tucker as an Emotional Support Animal the next time I flew. This meant that he would be able to sit on my lap during the flight so that he could be right there to ease my mind.
The Deets of an ESA
My psychologist wrote a letter with all of the necessary documentation to allow Tuck to become an Emotional Support Animal, which needs to be renewed every year. See the specific requirements of an ESA letter here. The airline will always ask to view the letter when you check-in at the counter. I’ve only had 1 flight attendant look at the letter once I was actually on the plane (see my airlines experiences below to see which airline it was).
I also call the airline a few days before I leave to let them know I have an ESA coming with me. That way, they will designate it on my boarding pass in advance. The flight attendants will know to expect an ESA at my seat number.
Unfortunately, there’s a stigma about ESA’s in the flying community. Some passengers will get an unethical note from a doctor even though they don’t suffer from any mental illness impacted by flying. They do that so that their pet doesn’t have to sit in a bag throughout the flight and/or so that they don’t have to pay the pet fee.
On a sidenote, I think the pet fee is utterly ridiculous. If your pet is in a carry-on bag like that of ANY other passenger, then why should you have to pay an upwards of $100 per flight just because a dog is in the bag? It’s yet another way airlines squeeze money out of their customers. The lowest pet fee is JetBlue’s $95. Still, it’s not justification for a “fake” doctor’s note.
So, I always feel strange when people ask how I was able to get Tucker to sit on my lap, as if it were a loophole I found in the flight rules. I feel like I have to explain myself to a stranger, which involves sharing the very personal detail that I suffer from panic attacks. I prefer not to do that. Instead, I usually say he’s an Emotional Support Animal and leave it at that, hoping the person doesn’t judge me for the rest of the flight. Trust me, I would much rather pay the pet fee than deal with my flight anxiety. It’s really not worth it. And whatever I save in pet fees goes right into paying for a psychologist.
Once I’m on the plane, Tucker sits on my lap and will mostly just sleep for the entire flight. He wakes up when he hears the snack and drink cart coming down the aisle and will try to swipe our neighbor’s food, but other than that, he’ll relax.
There’s been a bunch of research on the ways that dogs can sense our different emotions through the hormones we exude. They know when we’re stressed, worried or sad, for example.
I can attest to that. The second we sit down in our seat on the plane, Tucker begins to lick my wrist and the back of my hand. He’ll continue to do that until we’re in the air (Being the germophobe I am, I make sure my hands are clean before getting on the plane.) I have an impulse to pet him throughout the flight, particularly for the first and last 20 minutes or so. The chance to comb through his fur keeps me focused on something other than the fact that I’m in a flying steel tube.
There’s also something about feeling the weight of him on my lap. It gives me comfort to know he’s right there.
If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I recently flew back to my childhood home to pick up a few things. I ended up not taking Tucker with me because I was going to be gone for less than 24 hours and had someone else taking care of him for that period of time. I didn’t want to cause him unnecessary stress with such a whirlwind of a day. When I got on the first flight, I found myself freaking out a bit. It was the first time I had flown without Tucker in years. I didn’t like not having him on my lap. I felt flimsy. It reminded me how important Tuck is as an Emotional Support Animal.
I was trying to count the number of flights Tuck has been on. It’s probably been over a dozen, particularly since we take 1-stop flights fairly often. He knows the routine by now and even understands what to do when we go through security (I take him out of his bag and carry him through the metal detector, after which they check my hands for any illegal substances I might be hiding.)
My Experience with an ESA on Various Airlines
American/US Airways: I hate to start on a bad note, but I avoid this airline like the plague whenever possible. Unfortunately, there aren’t always a lot of options, especially when I’m flying to and from North Carolina or Florida, but I’ve been able to avoid flying on American for about a year now. Not only are their planes less comfortable, but I’ve had multiple less-than-ideal experiences with their crew members. I’ve had employees look at Tucker strangely and I’ve had others try to tell me that he needs to be in his bag, even after showing them my ESA letter. This was the only time (based on my memory) that I’ve had a flight attendant question Tuck’s status.
Delta: I’ve flown Delta the most in the recent months and I’ve never had a problem bringing Tuck on board. The flight attendants know the airline has already checked my ESA papers so it’s all good once we’re on board. On a flight I took a couple of weeks ago, a woman had a larger dog with her as an ESA. The doggy ended up sitting on her lap the entire flight with no issues from the airline. That was one of the only times I’ve seen a larger dog (he was about 40-45 pounds) as an ESA, but it was cool to know she had him along for the flight!
JetBlue: I love JetBlue. While I haven’t flown on every single airline out there, it’s definitely my favorite of the ones I have flown. Their crew is always so nice and they have a special program for those who fly with dogs (both for ESAs and non-ESAs). Their planes are better than most, too. When I lived in NYC, I was able to fly them most of the time whenever I traveled along the east coast.
Southwest: Southwest is my second favorite airline. I’ve mostly taken them to and from Dallas a few times over the recent years. Like JetBlue, their employees are friendly and their planes are generally comfy. They’ve always welcomed Tuck with open arms.
These are things that are always on my checklist before flying:
- Get the required documentation and renew it each year.
- Call the airline in advance to make sure they’re aware you’ll be flying with an Emotional Support Animal and to designate it on your boarding pass.
- Always have your documentation with you when traveling. They’ll want to see it when you check in and possibly once on the plane.
- Bring a blanket, toy, water, pee pad and other essentials on the plane. I wrote an entire post on Tuck’s plane survival guide awhile back so read it here!
Thanks for stopping by the blog today! I hope this helps any of you who have flying issues. I completely understand! As I travel with more airlines, I’ll be sure to update the post to let you guys know about any other experiences I have.