I Believe I Can Fly

If you don’t know that R. Kelly reference, click here. If you do, you’re welcome.

Traveling by airplane with a Service Dog is one of those things you do because you have to; not because it’s fun. And let me make this clear: It’s not the dog’s fault that it’s usually not fun. Nevertheless, I love to travel as much as the next guy; whether you’re a Service Dog Partner, a Puppy Raiser, or an innocent bystander, this article will be, at the very least, entertaining, but hopefully also helpful.

Exhibit A

As part of planning a trip from Rochester, NY, to St. Paul, MN, I called the airline (which shall remain nameless) to let them know I’d be traveling with Bright. I don’t have to call the airline, but I did it because it’s the nice thing to do.

Booking Agent: “You’re traveling with a Guide Dog?”

Me: “No. I’m traveling with a Service Dog. I use a wheelchair, like I said, and I’ll have my Service Dog with me.”

“So, you’re blind and wheelchair bound [insert my cringe here]? Will you be traveling with someone who can help you, or will you need assistance at the airport?”

“No. I’m not blind. My dog helps me get around in my wheelchair. I won’t need assistance at the airport. I was just calling to give the airline a heads up that a Service Dog would be on the flight I booked.”

“What breed is your dog?”

“Lab Golden Cross.”

“Oh, my. Those dogs are too big to fly. How much does it weigh?”

“60 lbs.”

“Oh, no. That dog is much to large to fly in the cabin.”

“…No, she’s not. Under the Air Carriers Act and the ADA, we can’t be separated. She has to fly where I fly.”

“…Umm…let me go talk to my supervisor.”

[Insert 20 minutes of scratchy, fuzzy hold music here.]

Booking Agent’s Supervisor: “Hello. I understand you’d like to travel with your Seeing Eye Dog. Will you need assistance boarding the plane?”

Me: “No. I use a wheelchair, and my dog is not Seeing Eye. She’s a Service Dog, and I just called to let the airline know that she’d be traveling with me.”

“Does she have papers?”

“What?”

“Proof that she’s a Service Dog. You’ll need to present that at the gate.”

[Insert more quoting of the ADA here.]

“Ok…what is it that you were calling for?”

“I just wanted to make the airline aware that a Service Dog would be traveling. Please seat me in the bulkhead, where there’s room for her to lay on the floor.”

When I arrived at the airport, the automatic ticket machine wouldn’t allow me to check in because the person I talked to on the phone flagged my reservation and required me to check in at the ticket counter. The man at the counter insisted that it was user error, but begrudgingly printed my boarding pass.

Then he asked for Bright’s “papers.”

For real?

At the gate, we found out that we’d been seated in the EXIT ROW on a full flight. The Exit Row. As in, the row you’re not allowed to sit in unless you are physically capable of helping people de-board the plane in case of an emergency. Also, there was no note in our reservation that Bright would be traveling.

Exhibit B

After that last experience, I said to myself, “Self, we’re not going to bother with the pointless 45 minute phone call. If there’s a problem, we’ll deal with it at the airport.”

This time, the automatic check-in machine gave me no trouble whatsoever. I printed my boarding pass, made it through security, and headed to the gate.

At the gate, I approached the agent and asked for a claim ticket for my wheelchair, and also asked that he make sure I was seated in the bulkhead. After changing my seating assignment, he lectured me about how in the future, I needed to call ahead and let the airline know that a Service Dog would be traveling so that they could arrange my seating in advance.

[Insert facepalm here.]

The treachery doesn’t end there, either.

On my way out of Washington D.C., a TSA employee told me I needed to remove all of Bright’s gear and send her through the metal detector alone. No way, man. As it turned out, she didn’t like dogs and didn’t want to have to pat her down.

I’ve also heard from friends with service dogs that passengers have refused to sit next to them because of a dislike for dogs.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve nearly missed almost every kind of public transportation out there because a passenger, agent, conductor, or another type of onlooker wanted to pet Bright and ask every question he or she could think of.

In addition to all of the humans that can muck the experience up, there’s the potty issue.

How long is too long? Who knows? At a certain point, I think we all just try to stay away from crowds, duck into a restroom and stuff a whole roll of TP or paper towels into our purses, and make our ways suspiciously quickly toward an exit. Any exit.

Was that painful to read?

If your brain hurts, then congratulations are in order – you’re ready for the frustration of air travel with a Service Dog. Just kidding.

Seriously, though.

Golly Alex, you’re kind of a glass half empty kind of girl, aren’t you?

It would seem that way, wouldn’t it. I’ll tell you one thing, though: The best way to prepare for travel with a dog is to anticipate the things that could go wrong. You don’t have to be miserable or spend the week before your trip dreading the airport, but you do need to do your homework. Here are a few things you can do:

Read. Check out the sections of the Air Carriers Act and the ADA that apply to Service Animals. Go on your airline’s website and find out what their policy actually states. Take screen shots on your smart phone so that you can show it to the TSA or gate agent who’s wearing his sassy pants.

Practice. I know it sounds silly, but memorize and practice explaining the federal regulations. You won’t be taken seriously if you sound defensive and your face turns red and your voice does that shaky thing while you stammer around something like, “Well, it’s…the law. You poo head!” An acceptable form of documentation is a “credible verbal assurance” of need, so be able to articulate what it is that your dog does for you. Don’t get sucked into trying to justify your need – simply state it.

Pack. When I travel long distance with Bright, whether it’s by car or plane, I always have a copy of her vaccinations on hand just in case someone really wants to fight. For more suggestions on how to pack light and still have everything your pup needs, check out Traveling Light.

Be smart. It’s terrible, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that booking agents are known to claim that a flight is already full if it appears that it’s going to be a lot of work to seat a person traveling with a Service Dog. If you are able, make your reservation online, then call to inform the airline that there will be a dog on the flight. I have a policy that I will not waste my afternoon on hold; if I don’t get what I need in a reasonable amount of time, I deal with it at the airport. The only time I wouldn’t recommend that tactic is if you’re going to be on an exceptionally long flight (8 hours or more) or if you’re traveling to Hawaii, Alaska, or internationally.

You might be your only ally.

We’re talking worst case scenario here, but even if everyone you come in contact with gives you a hard time, you’ll be fine as long as you’re prepared and you keep your cool. Don’t get bullied, and don’t be a bully. Be calm, articulate, and smart, and you will arrive at your destination with your dog at your side and your blood pressure at a healthy level.

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No, Bright wasn’t assigned her own seat; she just wanted to see things from a higher vantage point after we landed.

Related reading:

International Association of Assistance Dog Partners Travel Guide

USA Today Travel Tips

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5 thoughts on “I Believe I Can Fly

  1. Great article. We’ve flown with our CCI dog and generally had good experiences, but it is work even when it goes well.

    I was going to post a link to the air regulations, but then I found this very interesting “Guidance Concerning Service Animals
    in Air Transportation” which explains exactly what decisions the gate personnel make and what questions they should ask.

    http://www.dot.gov/sites/dot.dev/files/docs/20030509_0.pdf

    Then I found “14 CFR 382”, which helpfully includes a complaint form at the end.

    http://airconsumer.dot.gov/rules/382short.pdf

    • Yes, great references. Important to remember, also, is that emotional support and service animals are defined differently as of 2011, and service animals have more specific protections than emotional support (especially outside the realm of air travel). All service animal partners should be able to explain the differences, as articles like this one are slightly outdated on that specific subject.

  2. What a brilliantly written and articulate blog!! Your writing did make me smile..or was it cringe at the ineptitude of the Airline staff both on the ‘phone and at the Airport! My brother is a paraplegic following a motorcycle accident many years a go and has only flown a few times since being in a chair bit he found the whole experience fraught with stress and misunderstanding from staff.Questions like well once on the plane can you walk to your seat?? Etc etc Or staff trying to seat him in a middle seat when he clearly has to transfer from chair to seat!! Should he hover above the other passengers while he accomplishes this trick??!! All very frustrating!!

  3. thanks for sharing your experiences, i have an ECAD service dog, i carry her papers with me, no medical, i too call before hand, to advise the airlines that i have a sd, i find a window seat is good for us. lizzy is about 48lbs, and the aisle or bulk head does not work well for us. also, i ask for pre boarding at the gate, we do a meet and greet, an introduction with the flight crew. good luck and may things get better for you all.

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