It’s that time of year again that many of us begin to think about traveling. While traveling with your trained and well-behaved Service Dog is your privilege, there are some steps you need to take to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.
Know what to expect
The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has universal guidelines for traveling with a service dog or assistance animal. But each airline interprets them slightly differently. The key to success? Always call first!
Are you flying out of the country or to an island like Hawaii? Service Animals may need to be quarantined depending on your destination. Check with the airline to find out what the current regulations are for your destination country. Confirm with your airline and ask if there are any quarantines happening that you need to be aware of. Each airline interprets TSA guidelines slightly differently. The key to success? Always call first!
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 animals temperament before you consider flying. If you are at all concerned about how your assistance animal will react to flying consider driving, Amtrak or Greyhound. Please note that Psychiatric Service Animals may also require special documentation from your doctor in the form of a letter.
Contact your airline before you travel
The crew may need to make preparations for your boarding, so you must call to make them aware of what type of animal you use. The agent may also be able to help you select the most comfortable seat for you and your animal. Find a direct flight if possible because it will make for an easier experience for you and your animal.
We’ve provided some links to the major carriers to make your life easier.
- United Airlines/United Express/Ted
- American Airlines/American Eagle
- Delta Airlines
- Southwest Airlines
- Air Canada
- Continental Airlines
- Northwest Airlines
- US Airways
- JetBlue Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- Lufthansa Airlines
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.
Tech Tip — Find airport dog relief areas: Do you have a smartphone? The free Working Like Dogs “Where to Go” app for Apple or Android can help you find airport dog relief areas.
You and your Service Dog must remain courteous at all times
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 it is your privilege under the law to be accompanied by your Service or Assistance Dog, you still need to be respectful of others who may be uncomfortable around animals. 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 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.
What tasks does your animal perform 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 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.
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, 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.
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 harness, leash or collar. If you experience any problems at the security checkpoint, you should request that a supervisor be contacted for assistance. If you wish to file a complaint against the TSA, send a message to: TSA.ODPO@dhs.gov and 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 & 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.
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 Animal. If this is your first time flying with your Assistance Animal 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 Animal to use the space at your feet. Small dry treats for your animal will help them feel more comfortable. Avoid bringing water onto the plane for your dog.
Consider using Pet Airways
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 book their Service Animals on a special flights with airlines like Pet Airways.
Still have questions about screening procedures?
The TSA recently 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).
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 . 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.
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