Traveling with a service dog just got a little more complicated

Elizabeth Howe
December 11, 2018 - 12:22 pm

Photo courtesy of Dreamstime

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As the holidays approach so does one of the busiest travel seasons of the year — and if you're traveling with a service or emotional support animal, travel can be even more challenging. 

Delta recently announced a new policy that prohibits any emotional support animal under the age of four months on any flight. Additionally, no emotional support animal is allowed on flights longer than eight hours.

The policy change, Delta wrote in a statement, follows an 84 percent increase in reported incidents involving service and support animals from 2016 to 2017. These incidents include urination/defecation and biting — including an attack by a 50-pound emotional support dog that resulted in facial wounds and 28 stitches.

Delta's policy change is one of several that has resulted from a crackdown on emotional support animals. Many of these policies are working to make flights safer. They're also helping to weed out fraudulent dogs. But veterans with legitimate service dogs are getting caught up in the mix. Organizations like American Humane's Operation Service Dog Access and the American Service Dog Access Coalition are working to create a registry for service dogs, but for now, no legitimate ones exist.

RELATED: New registry may make traveling with service dogs easier 

The American Service Dog Access Coalition registry is provided by K9s for Warriors. Rory Diamond, K9s CEO says there are dozens of service dog registries out there, but no legitimate ones right now. “You can go online and put your name in a registry and someone delivers to your home a little card that says you’re in their registry,” says Diamond. “Technically it doesn’t mean a thing. They sell people that and people put on their pet and they lie and say it’s a service dog.”

“The purpose of the registry is to weed out the fraudulent dogs because it’s become epidemic,” says Gina Esoldi, Assistant Training Director with Next Step Service Dogs.  Esoldi has been traveling with her service dog at least once a month for the past five years.  “We treat our pets very well.  But our society is misconstruing what public access truly means.  Or what a service dog is.  They want to take their pets everywhere.  They’re not trained to be in public and not always appropriate.”

These organizations are still working to establish a legitimate registry — so in the meantime, Esoldi offered tips to help veterans traveling with a service dog: 

  • Make the appropriate reservation. Then follow up with a call to customer service and let them know about your reservation.  Often customer service will switch your seat to one that is more comfortable for both you and your dog.
  • Know what to expect.  TSA has guidelines for traveling with a service dog.
  • Toilet your dog.  As with most things in life now, there’s an app for this.  Where to Go can help you and your dog find where to 'go' in airports across the country.
  • Check in at the counter and let them know you have a dog.  Communication is key when traveling with your service animal.
  • Be mindful of somebody who might not be comfortable around a dog.  Let an attendant know and let them handle it.  By law you can be there with your service dog.

Additionally, different airlines have different policies. Be familiar with the policy for your chosen airline.

DeltaView Service Animal Policy

UnitedView Service Animal Policy

United Airlines requires that trained service animals sit in the floor space at the feet of the passenger they are accompanying. Travelers are allowed to use an approved kennel to transport their companion, as long as meets the stowage requirements for animals. Exit row seating is also prohibited for anyone traveling with a service animal.

United does not require documentation at the time of arrival for your flight, but they do make it clear that additional documentation may be required for international destinations.

SouthwestView Service Animal Policy

Customers flying with their service dog on Southwest can bring their service animal in the cabin of the plane with them. The animal is legally allowed to be kept outside of a kennel, provided it can fit on the floor at the traveler’s feet, or on their lap, without obstructing pathway. Southwest does not allow a service animal to sit in a seat, even if an extra seat has been purchased.

It is important to note that if you do decide to place your service animal in a kennel, the carrier must be properly stowed for taxi takeoff, and landing. Additionally, Southwest makes it very clear that no animals of ANY kind are allowed to travel to/from Jamaica because of that country’s specific regulations.

American Airlines: View Service Animal Policy

American Airlines also welcomes service animals on all flights, at no additional charge to the passenger. Under the airline's cabin rules, the animal must be able to fit on the lab, or under the seat of the passenger. All service animals are expected to be well groomed and well behaved at all times. If your service animal is too large to sit on your lap or at your feet, it can still travel free of charge. However, it will need to be checked and travel in a kennel. It is important to check the size of your animal beforehand and coordinate with the airline prior to purchasing tickets.

American Airlines makes it clear that all service animals cannot be blocking any aisles of the cabin. Additionally, anyone traveling with a service animal is not allowed to sit in an exit row. The airline encourages passengers with service animals to contact them ahead of time to arrange seating so there aren’t any surprises on the day of travel.

Spirit Airlines: View Service Animal Policy

Spirit Airlines has a bit more specific guidelines when it comes to where a traveler with an animal may sit. According to their website, they try at all times to provide travelers with animals seats in the bulkhead rows. Spirits Airlines also makes it clear that if an animal is on the lap of the passenger, that passenger, for the safety of the animal, can not sit in any seat that has an inflatable seat-belt.

Aside from these specifics, Spirit Airlines follows the same protocol as all the other major airlines. That is, service animals may travel freely in the cabin, as long as they fit on the lap of their handler, or on the floor at their feet without blocking the aisle. Travelers with an animal may also not sit in any of the emergency exit rows, even if that row is a bulkhead row. Finally, if the animal is in a crate, but also in the cabin, Spirit Airlines does not allow the traveler to sit in the first or second row of the plane.

JetBlueView Service Animal Policy

JetBlue encourages its travelers to contact them ahead of time to let them know you will be flying with your service dog. Unlike some other airlines, JetBlue will accommodate a traveler with two service animals, if they can. Travelers with two service animals will be allowed to purchase two seats so they have extra space on the floor of the cabin. If two service animals are traveling in a kennel, they may share one if they both fit comfortably inside.

JetBlue does not accept service animals in training on their flights. Unusual animals, including but not limited to snakes, reptiles, rodents, and spiders, are also not permitted on JetBlue flights. JetBlue also makes it clear that a service animal MUST be providing necessary assistance to the individual with whom they are traveling.

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