Flying with a Service Animal

Service animals are a vital part of many Americans’ lives.  Whether it be a guide dog for the blind, seizure alert dog for those with epilepsy, or emotional support animal; I absolutely support those with disabilities that benefit from a service animal.  And I support passengers flying with a service animal.

Perhaps this is why I am so offended when people abuse the system.  In a New Yorker article the author tried out various service and emotional support animal to see just how far she could go.

Last week I was on an Alaska Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Seattle.  A woman with two large Boxers boarded the plane.  Neither were wearing any sort of identification as service animals.  She was seated in the middle seat and clearly there was not enough room for both of her 90+ lbs dogs to fit under the seat in front of her.  The flight attendant ended up moving the aisle passenger to a middle seat in the back of the plane.  Our flight ended up being delayed due to the rearranging of passengers.

I don’t want to assume anything (but I will).  I just cannot imagine why someone would need two of the same breed of large dogs for their disabilities.  What should the airline have done?  Were they correct in allowing both dogs on the flight and forcing another passenger to be re-seated?

Flying with a Service Animal
Photo by Lachlan Hardy (edited)

Federal Laws Regarding Flying with a Service Animal

The Americans with Disabilities Act only allows employees of a government agency, business, or non-profit that provides goods/services to the public to ask two questions:

  1. Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?

Per the ADA, “staff are not allowed to request any documentation for the dog, require that the dog demonstrate its task, or inquire about the nature of the person’s disability.”

The ADA does NOT cover emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion animals.  However state or local governments may have additional laws to cover these animals.

Interestingly, the ADA does NOT cover air travel.  There is a separate Federal law known as the Air Carrier Access Act that covers flying with a service animal.  Similarly, emotional support animals are a slightly different category and may require passengers to show a note from a doctor or mental health professional.  It also seems like animals in training do not follow under the same protections.

The Department of Transportation released this “guidance” regarding service animals.  It suggestions:

How Do I Know if a Passenger Is a Qualified Individual With a Disability Who Is Entitled To Bring a Service Animal in the Cabin of the Aircraft if the Disability Is Not Readily Apparent?

  • Ask the passenger about his or her disability as it relates to the need for a service animal. Once the passenger identifies the animal as a service animal, you may ask, ‘‘How does your animal assist you with your disability?’’ Avoid the question ‘‘What is your disability?’’ as this implies you are asking for a medical label or the cause of the disability, which is intrusive and inconsistent with the intent of the ACAA. Remember, Part 382 is intended to facilitate travel by people with disabilities by requiring airlines to accommodate them on an individual basis.
  • Ask the passenger whether he or she has documentation as a means of verifying the medical necessity of the passenger traveling with the animal. Keep in mind that you can ask but cannot require documentation as proof of service animal status UNLESS (1) a passenger’s verbal assurance is not credible and the airline personnel cannot in good faith determine whether the animal is a service animal without documentation, or (2) a passenger indicates that the animal is to be used as an emotional support animal.
  • Using the questions and other factors above, you must decide whether it is reasonable to believe that the passenger is a qualified individual with a disability, and the animal is a service animal.

My experience above — where there are two service animals — is actually directly addressed.

What About the Passenger Who Has Two or More Service Animals?

  • A single passenger legitimately may have two or more service animals. In these circumstances, you should make every reasonable effort to accommodate them in the cabin in accordance with part 382 and company policies on seating. This might include permitting the passenger to purchase a second seat so that the animals can be accommodated in accordance with FAA safety regulations. You may offer the passenger a seat on a later flight if the passenger and animals cannot be accommodated together at a single passenger seat. Airlines may not charge passengers for accommodations that are required by part 382, including transporting service animals in the cargo compartment. If carriage in the cargo compartment is unavoidable, notify the destination station to return the service animal(s) to the passenger at the gate as soon as possible, or to assist the passenger as necessary to re

Judging from this lengthy list of court cases, the rules have been tested.  I am sure airlines want to avoid costly legal battles and bad press.

Flying with a Service Animal
By DanDee Shots (Guide horse) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Airline Policies for Flying with a Service Animal

Not surprisingly, most airlines have their own written policies about passengers flying with a service animal.  Here are a few of them:

They all seem pretty similar; service animals are always allowed and emotional support animals are allowed with documentation.  If traveling internationally or to Hawaii (where they have certain laws about bringing animals in), the rules may be slightly different.

Interestingly Delta specifies which animals can NOT be brought on an aircraft even as a service animal due to safety risks to other passengers:

  • Hedgehogs
  • Ferrets
  • Insects
  • Rodents
  • Snakes
  • Spiders
  • Sugar gliders
  • Reptiles
  • Non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game bird, & birds of prey)
  • Animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor
  • Animals with tusk or hooves

I wonder if these exclusions were added after the flying turkey.

You can read about others’ experiences with flying with a service animal over at FlyerTalk.

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