While traveling with a Service Dog in the United States is your privilege, navigating airline policies, international laws, TSA regulations, security checkpoints and other commonly-encountered situations can be anything but smooth sailing. Here are some tips, tricks, guidelines and resources to ensure your trip is as stress-free as possible.
Know the laws
Before you can educate anyone else about your right to travel with a Service Dog, you need to be familiar with the laws yourself. While U.S. federal law grants near-unrestricted public access to Service Dogs, air access laws for traveling with a Service Dog are actually defined by a separate piece of legislation, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Federal Service Dog law and the ADA only apply to public access while you and your partner’s feet are on the ground. Fortunately, though, the ACAA is relatively straight-forward. Individuals with a disability traveling with a Service Dog are to be granted access to air travel with their partner riding in the cabin, free of charge. Additionally, any equipment used in conjunction with an assistance animal’s work is to be considered an assistive device and can be flown free of charge in the cargo hold as medical equipment. (Please note that food is not equipment under this definition and therefore may count as carry-on or checked baggage.)
Air carriers may make inquiries regarding the dog’s status as a Service Dog, but must accept credible verbal assurance from the handler, the presence of a harness, vest, or other identifying gear, ID cards or other written documentation as proof of the dog’s job. Service Dogs cannot block or obstruct aisles on the plane, they may not sit in a seat, and for safety reasons, the handler and dog cannot be seated in an emergency exit row.
While Emotional Support Animals are not granted access under the ADA, the ACAA does allow them to fly with their owners. However, there are special requirements for flying with an Emotional Support Animal (ESA).
Keep in mind that federal law does not mention Service Dogs in Training (SDiT) or grant them access under the ADA. Access rights for Service Dogs in Training is determined by the state you reside in. Check your state laws before planning trips if you’re traveling with an SDiT. The laws of the state where the airport you originate in is located will determine your Service Dog in Training’s access rights under ADA and the ACAA.
Know what to expect from security
The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has universal guidelines for traveling with a Service Dog or assistance animal and clearing security. Just know that you and your dog must both go through the metal detector. You can go through together or separately. Your Service Dog is going to be patted down regardless, so you’ll need to decide if you’re willing to undergo additional physical examination if your partner sets the alarm off. If you’re not, go through the metal detector separately, which means your Assistance Dog needs a solid stand-stay. After you’re both through the metal detector, your dog will be physically examined by a TSA officer, so his stand-for-exam should be practiced and proofed before traveling. TSA cannot ask you to undress your Service Dog and they cannot separate your partner from you.
The easiest way to seamlessly move through security is to either send your partner’s gear through the xray and walk your partner through separately from yourself on only an “airport leash,” or one without metal hardware that will alarm OR to use the minimum amount of gear necessary so the pat down for your partner is quick and easy. You do NOT have to remove your partner’s gear unless you’d like to.
Are you flying out of the country or to an island like Hawaii? Service Animals may need to be quarantined depending on your destination. If you are taking your pet out of the United States to another country, whether permanently or for a visit, it is defined as “export.” The United States has minimal requirements for animals to be exported to other countries. If you’re just planning on visiting, please be advised that there may be certain re-entry requirements if you plan to return to the United States with your Service Dog.
Recognize that even though your Service Dog isn’t a pet, pet import/export requirements, unless otherwise noted by your destination country, may still apply. Please visit the USDA Pet Travel page for important information and things you must do. The U.S. Department of State offers further explanation on their “Pets and International Travel” page. In addition, it’s also helpful to contact your airline to find out what the current regulations are for your destination country. Confirm policies with your airline and ask if there are any quarantines.
Do research ahead of time on the laws concerning Service Dogs in the country you’ll be traveling to. Not all countries provide access for Service Dogs, and requirements can vary widely. Assistance Dog International provides a list of laws covering common international destinations and they can offer resources for travelers heading to other countries. It is 100% your responsibility to meet all guidelines required for international travel with your Service Dog.
Some people are uncomfortable flying, and so are some animals
Even the best trained Assistance Animal may have difficulty flying and you need to judge your own animal’s temperament before you consider flying. If you are at all concerned about how your assistance animal will react to flying consider driving, Amtrak, Greyhound or Megabus.
Each airline interprets ACAA guidelines slightly differently. The key to success? Always call first!
Train some required skills
Make sure your Service Dog knows the behaviors and skills required for a smooth trip through the airport and on the plane. Check out this guide for more info.
Contact your airline before you travel
The crew may need to make preparations for your boarding, so it’s an excellent idea to make them aware of what type of Service Animal you use. The agent may also be able to help you select the most comfortable seat, as well as offer you additional accommodation, like priority boarding. Find a direct flight if possible because it will make for an easier experience for both you and your partner.
We’ve provided some links to the major carriers to make your life easier.
- United Airlines/United Express (NOTE: Only trainers are permitted to bring SDiTs on board.)
- American Airlines/American Eagle (NOTE: Ensure your Service Animal is added to your reservation before you arrive at the airport, in order to keep difficulties down when checking in with American Airlines.)
- Delta Airlines (NOTE: Delta flights typically have a bit more space per seat.)
- Southwest Airlines (NOTE: Southwest Airlines is known for being extremely accommodating to Service Dog teams. They do allow SDiTs in cabin, but a ticket must be purchased for the dog in training for half of the current price point of a seat.)
- Air Canada (NOTE: Air Canada follows Canadian federal law, not U.S. federal law or ACAA. They require certification for all Service Animals flying on board in the cabin.)
- JetBlue Airlines (NOTE: JetBlue will not transport SDiTs in the cabin.)
- Alaska Airlines (NOTE: Alaska Airlines will ship both your SD’s kennel and/or your SD in their kennel as cargo free of charge. Alaska Airlines only accepts SDiTs who have graduated from their program who are being transported to their owner in a new city.)
- Spirit Airlines (NOTE: Spirit Airlines will allow you to choose your seat on board the flight, as long as it is not in an exit row.)
Before you arrive, limit water and exercise your Assistance Animal
Most likely, it will be a long time before you’ll find a good place for your Service Animal to relieve themselves again. Note: If you need to leave the secure boarding area to relieve your animal, you must undergo the full screening process again. Inform the Security Officer upon your return to the security checkpoint and she/him will move you to the front of the screening line to expedite the screening process.
You and your Service Dog must remain courteous and professional at all times
While it is your privilege under the law to travel with a Service Dog, you still need to be respectful of others who may be uncomfortable around animals.
The experience others may have with you and your Service Dog may be the first and only they will ever have. It is up to you to leave them with an excellent impression.
While traveling with a Service Dog, keep your partner under control at all times to avoid becoming the center of attention. Do not play with or show off your Service Dog in the airport or during your flight. Remember, how you and your Service Dog act directly affects other Service and Assistance Dog teams.
Arrive at the airport early and let airline officials and security know that your Service Dog is not a pet
Inform the Security Officer that the animal accompanying you is a Service Animal and not a pet. This will provide you with an opportunity to move to the front of the screening line since the Security Officer may need to spend more time with you. At no time during the screening process should you be required to be separated from your Service Animal.
Identification and documentation
Airlines do require some form of assurance that your dog is indeed a Service Animal and not a pet. Identification, such as cards or documentation, the presence of a harness or markings on the harness, a doctor’s letter or other credible assurance of the passenger using the animal for their disability is required. Please call or review each airline’s policy.
In addition to your Service Dog, it’s possible your disability may have further circumstances that require special consideration when moving through security and boarding the plane. You’re not required to provide medical documentation to an officer, however, many passengers find it helpful to have medical documentation as a way to discreetly communicate information about their needs to an officer. The TSA has created an optional Notification Card that passengers can use for discreet communication. Use of this Notification Card, or of medical documentation, does not exempt a passenger from screening.
Be prepared to explain what tasks does your animal performs to help you with your disability
What makes a Service Dog different from a pet are the specific physical tasks or work the animal can perform to help someone manage their disability. While it is inappropriate for someone to ask you about your disability, they may ask what tasks your dog is trained to perform. If you have an invisible disability and use a Service Dog, such as a Psychiatric Service Dog, it helps to have letter from a physician in addition to any other identification materials you may have. Remember, misrepresenting an animal as a Service or Assistance Dog isn’t only unethical, it’s against the law. Also keep in mind that some types of Service Dogs require additional documentation, like a physician’s letter, in order to legally travel via aircraft.
Be polite and accommodating of the Security Officers
Being polite and friendly with the Security Officers will go a long way to making your admission quicker. Remember, they have a stressful job and treating them with respect will make things easier. Security Officers have been trained how to treat Assistance Animals and their handlers. They know not to communicate, distract, interact, play, feed, or pet Service Animals.
You must assist with the inspection process by controlling the Service Animal while the Security Officer conducts the inspection. You must maintain control of your animal in a manner that ensures the animal cannot harm the Security Officer.
Proceeding through Security
Recent changes now require that after you successfully go through the metal detector, you cannot make contact with your dog (other than holding the leash) until the dog has been inspected and cleared by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. Even if you walk through the metal detector and do not set off the alarm, you can be required to undergo additional screening if you touch your dog before it has been cleared.
Secondly, depending on the airport regulations, you may be asked to maintain contact with your dog’s leash at all times. If this procedure creates a problem for you — such as with a child who has autism — please explain this to the security officer. Of course, you are responsible for maintaining control of your Service Dog at all times.
Your Service Dog may require a special screening
Finally, passengers traveling with any kind of animal may now be required to undergo explosives trace testing. This process is quick and easy and generally takes place after you have cleared security. You may be asked to hold your hands out, palm side up. The security officer will then wipe a swab about the size of your palm across each of your hands and then ask you to wait while a machine analyzes the swab for traces of explosives. This process leaves no residue on your hands.
Remember, TSA personnel cannot request that you be separated from your dog nor are you required to remove your dog’s gear, harness, leash or collar. If you experience any problems at the security checkpoint, you should request that a supervisor be contacted for assistance.
Check in at the gate
After you’ve gone through security, check in at the counter at the gate. Let the flight attendants know that you have an Assistance Dog. If this is your first time flying with your Service Dog on this airline, ask them what you need to do. Most likely you will be allowed to board the aircraft first.
Boarding the airplane
Once you’ve passed through the skybridge to the aircraft, the flight attendants on board will guide you to your seat. Most airlines require your Assistance Dog to use the space at your feet. Keeping small treats readily accessible for your partner will help them feel more comfortable. Avoid bringing water onto the plane for your dog.
Aisles on airplanes are very narrow, so it’s helpful to teach your partner to either walk behind or in front of you. For dogs who are used to only heeling by their handler’s side, this unique situation can be slightly confusing. It’s easiest to send your partner into your seating area first, and then to follow, so you’re not trying to shuffle your Service Dog while also situating yourself. If your dog has a solid “under,” you’ll both be significantly more comfortable. Even large dogs can travel comfortably by settling their rear end under the seat in front of you, and resting their upper half between your feet.
Tips for take-off and landing
Service Dogs can easily slide like crazy on take off and landings. To reduce this, have them sit facing you, so you can hang on to them with your legs while you feed a few small treats or let them chew on a favorite toy. If you use a toy, be sure to choose one that you are able to keep a grip on in case they drop it. Chew toys and treats help distract your dog and keep them calm while also reducing pressure in their ears when cabin pressure changes.
Like babies, even a well-trained Service Dog may fuss if they’re not distracted and the sliding and ear popping can scare them. Since dogs are very situational, one bad experience can color the dog’s view of airplanes and flying for a long time. Planning for this potential pitfall in advance can prevent in the moment, and future, problems.
Consider crate transport
Depending on your disability, you may not need your animal with you in the airport and airplane, though you will when you land at your destination. Some disabled individuals choose to transport their animals as cargo and some airlines even have special programs like United’s PetSafe. Alaska Airlines is one of the few that will transport your Service Dog in an appropriate kennel as cargo free of charge. Many airlines allow small animals to travel in-cabin as well. Check with your airline for details.
Still have questions about screening procedures?
In 2011, the TSA launched TSA Cares, a new helpline number specifically designed to assist travelers with disabilities. You may call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 prior to traveling if you have questions about screening policies, procedures and what to expect at the security checkpoint. The hours of operation for the TSA Cares helpline are Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. Eastern time; weekends and federal holidays, 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. Eastern time. You can also e-mail TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov to request information about screening procedures.
If you feel you were the victim of discrimination
If you believe you are experiencing discriminatory treatment by air carrier personnel or contractors (e.g., pilots, gate agents, or flight attendants) you may request immediate on-site assistance from a Complaint Resolution Official, commonly referred to as a CRO. You may also file a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). Be sure to include your name, address, phone number and email address as well as the date/time you went through the security checkpoint, the name of the airport, and the name of the airline, flight number and departure gate if known. Give a brief description of what happened and include as much as you can remember about your experience and the TSA personnel involved.
For those wishing to learn more about the rights of individuals traveling by air with a Service Dog, you may call The DOT’s Disability Hotline at 1-800-778-4838 (voice) or 1-800-455-9880 (TTY). The Hotline is available from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, except holidays.
Special thanks to The Evolution of the Soapbox for assistance in compiling information on the revised TSA screening procedures.