The following article was inspired by a February 10 discussion call sponsored by the Pennsylvania Guide Dog Users and Supporters (PAGDUS). PAGDUS hosts discussion calls on the second Wednesday evening of every even-numbered month, presenting thought-provoking topics and useful information about all aspects of working and living with your guide dog. This most recent discussion call featured a presentation made by Melissa Allman, Senior Specialist in Advocacy and Government Relations, at The Seeing Eye, Inc., 973-539-4425, info@SeeingEye.org, and www.seeingeye.org/. It should be noted that your guide dog school should be a good source for the latest information on air travel and your service animal.
On December 10, 2020, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) published in the Federal Register a final rule to amend the Department’s Air Carrier Access Act regulation on the transport of service animals by air. In that final rule, the Department allows airlines to require passengers traveling with service animals to provide carriers with two forms of documentation developed by the Department – a U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Air Transportation Form (www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2020-12/Service%20Animal%20Health%20Behavior
%20Training%20Form.pdf) and a U.S. Department of Transportation Service Animal Relief Attestation Form (www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2020-12/Service%20Animal%20Relief%
On the Service Animal Behavior Form, you must input your name, phone number, and email address, your guide dog’s name, description of dog, date of last vaccination, date of vaccination expiration, attestation to no disease-carrying vermin, your vet’s name and phone number, attestation that dog is a service animal, and name and phone number of guide dog school. In addition, there is an attestation that your properly-trained dog will not bark, act aggressively, or relieve itself on the plane. You also agree that if your dog does not act like a properly-trained service animal, the airline can treat it as a pet, charge a pet fee, and require you to transport it in a pet carrier. Finally, you must attest that your dog has not been aggressive to people and other animals, you agree that that your dog will remain leashed, in harness, and otherwise tethered in the airport, and on the plane, and that you can be charged for damage caused by your dog. You must sign the document and, by signing, you acknowledge that you may be subject to federal law.
On the Relief Attestation Form, required for flight segments of eight hours or more, you must input your name, phone number, and email address, your dog’s name, and flight info (date, length, departure airport, and arrival airport). You will also have to check one or both boxes: either your dog will not have to relieve himself during the flight or, if your dog does relieve himself during the flight, he can do so without “creating a health/sanitation issue.” You then have to describe how the dog won’t relieve himself or can relieve himself without creating a health/sanitation issue. You then agree that you will pay for damage caused by your dog. Finally, you sign under penalty of federal law.
Along with these required forms, the DOT has made several rule changes. One change narrows the definition of “service animal” to be a dog (not a horse) that must be trained to perform a specific task. And, after much debate, the DOT ruled that airlines cannot discriminate based on breed, e.g., pit bulls are allowed as service animals. Emotional support dogs are now treated as pets and must be carried or kenneled at all times.
Hence, airlines can ask the 2 ADA questions: is it a service animal and is it trained to perform a specific task? It is recommended that you respond in a matter-of-fact way by saying, “I am blind and this is my guide dog.”
You can submit these forms electronically up to forty-eight hours in advance of flight or at the gate. However, if the flight reservation was made less than forty-eight hours before the flight, they cannot require the advanced form, but they can require that you present the form at the gate. Airlines are required to have these forms available at the airport (for all domestic flights and at foreign airports serving flights to and from the US).
Federal law requires airlines to provide these official DOT forms in an accessible and fillable online format. Most airlines are in the process of developing their websites to meet these requirements. Allegiant, Southwest, and Alaskan airlines DOT forms are pretty accessible to screen readers but may not be as accessible for people with other disabilities.
Airline personnel are supposed to help you fill out the forms, unless it causes unreasonable delays. Even if you don’t fill out the online forms in advance, airlines are supposed to accept the forms at the gate, unless it causes unreasonable delays. It should be noted that airlines may not use their own forms, they must use the official DOT forms.
Alaskan and American allow you to save service animal info. You get a service animal ID, so you don’t have to fill in the same info over and over. The American ID is good for a year, while the Alaskan ID is good for the life of the current vaccine.
Furthermore, airlines are not allowed to force you to check in at the airport: you can check in online. You are allowed to have two service animals per passenger. The service animal must fit in the foot-space or on your lap. Airlines cannot force you to sit in a bulkhead seat, but you are not allowed to sit in the emergency row of seats. Airlines are supposed to accommodate large service animals by trying to put them next to an empty seat, but they reserve the right to require the dog to travel in cargo if no adequate space is available in the cabin. Dogs must be harnessed, leashed, or tethered at all times, which means that a handler can No longer have their service animal managed by only voice commands. It is recommended that you request early boarding for you and your dog. Finally, the airline can deny you boarding of the plane if your dog is barking, lunging, or relieving itself at the gate.
If you think you have been discriminated against, ask for a Complaints Resolution Officer (CRO). Airlines are required to make one available to you, at no cost, in person at the airport or by telephone during the times they are operating. Failure to provide you with a CRO constitutes a violation of your rights. The DOT recommends that you try to resolve the issue with the airline’s customer service staff. If you are not satisfied with the response you get from airline personnel, you can file a complaint on the airline’s website. Finally, if you get no satisfactory response from the airline, you can file a complaint directly with DOT (www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint). Remember that inaccessible online forms may also constitute a violation of your rights subject to complaint.
If you need more info, visit the DOT website (www.transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/service-animals) or you can contact Seeing Eye’s Senior Advocacy Specialist Melissa Allman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, The DOT has a very informative webinar, for which you have to register, at Ada-audio.org and searching through recent webinars in their archives.
You will minimize hassles by knowing your rights and responsibilities, preparing ahead of time, and having your paperwork in hand.