Article Photo Credits: Our feature image is from an excellent video by Today called Hope to It: Helping service dogs earn their wings.
First, regarding your ability to take your assistance dog on a flight: Yes, under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), you are legally guaranteed the right to bring your assistance dog into the cabin of your plane without paying any extra charges.
Second, some necessary disclaimers and clarifications:
The information provided here is specific to flying on planes operated by US-based international, national, and regional commercial airlines, including (but not limited to) American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines. Foreign airlines are held to US laws when providing service within the country.
Also, if you’re flying internationally, you may face restrictions based on your destination’s laws. For example, Jamaica has particularly prohibitive rules, and unless your assistance dog was born in either Great Britain or Ireland and meets a few other qualifications, you can’t bring her into the country. Other nations may require certain medical records or a temporary quarantine upon your arrival. US law only operates in the US and on a US-operated plane; once you deplane in foreign country, you’re subject to local laws.
Furthermore, while you have basic rights guaranteed by the ACAA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it comes to taking a flight with your guide, hearing, or service dog, some details of air travel vary by airline. This brings us to a point that must be stressed:
Talk to Your Airline Before Booking Your Flight
For starters, the airline should be made aware of your intentions to travel with your assistance dog. It’s not a requirement, but talking to them ahead helps ensure everything goes smoothly for you. Also, while airlines can’t require advanced notice that a person with a disability is flying, some do require 24 or 48 hours’ notice about special situations like respirator hookups or large electric wheelchairs going onto small aircraft.
Get the details about all their rules and processes. If you are flying out of the country, speak to a representative who can fill you in on the laws where you’re landing and what to expect at your destination’s airport.
The Air Carrier Access Act
The ACAA was passed in 1986 to prohibit commercial airline discrimination against people with physical and mental disabilities. It guarantees your right to bring you assistance dog with you on your flight and not in a crate or carrier—and in the cabin, not the cargo section, provided she is not too large to be safely and reasonably accommodated.
It also covers an array of other aspects of air travel, such as protections against discriminatory actions and policies, rights for seating priority and boarding/deplaning assistance, various accessibility requirements for planes over 30 seats and ordered in 1990 or later, excluding assistive devices from carry-on limits, and more.
Going Through Airport Security with Your Assistance Dog
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) must screen you and your canine partner just like all other air passengers. Inform the TSA agent that you are traveling with a guide, hearing, or service dog.
You are legally protected against being separated from your assistance dog, so walk through the metal detector together; you may also be checked by a pat-down. Additionally, the TSA does not require that your dog’s harness, vest, backpack, or other service gear be removed for screening, in acknowledgment that this signals to your dog that she is off duty.
Lead your dog through the metal detector by her leash. Once through, continue to hold her leash, but do not make contact with her until the attending TSA agent has examined her. If you’re traveling with medication for your dog, bring supporting documentation, separate it from your baggage, and identify it to the TSA agent.
Steer your assistance dog clear of any German shepherd or other working security dogs. Just like you don’t want anything distracting your assistance dog from her job, neither do security agents want their animals taken off task.
Check in at Your Gate
After passing through security, head to your gate. Get there well in advance of boarding time to check in. Identify your assistance dog and ask what you need to do. You are not guaranteed the right to board early, but most airlines happily grant the privilege upon request. You are, however, guaranteed a seat preference, but to exercise this right, you must contact the airline at least 24 hours before your flight and let them know which seat you want.
Is that an Assistance Dog, Emotional Support Animal, or Pet?
Airline personnel at the gate have to make the determination that your assistance dog is in fact a legitimate assistance dog. These are the only animals people have the right to bring with them onto a commercial airplane.
These days, most major airlines allow emotional support animals on board, but only with supporting documentation from a treating doctor and usually in a crate or carrier. Unfortunately, it’s also not too uncommon for people to try to pass of their pet dogs as service animals.
There are a few ways airline employees assess your dog. Most importantly, they seek “credible verbal assurances,” or a believable, detailed account of how she’s been trained to mitigate your disability. This primarily entails asking you about what tasks the dog has been trained to do for you and how she performs them.
Personnel will also look for service gear like a vest, harness, or backpack. However, they know that not all assistance dogs have such items, and that a lack of them doesn’t mean anything. They also know to watch for the restrained good behavior assistance dogs are well trained for.
You may be asked to provide supporting documentation, but airline personnel are urged by the Department of Transportation to only resort to this if a passenger is unable to offer credible verbal assurances. A letter from your doctor suffices.
Seating Arrangements on the Plane
Your assistance dog is required to sit in the floor space in front of your seat. She must be clean and kept calm and quiet, and she can’t obstruct aisles or emergency exits. Airlines don’t have to provide more space than this for free, nor are they required to make another passenger surrender their space.
If your dog won’t fit at your feet, discuss options with flight attendants. If the seat next to you is empty, or if there’s another spot on the plane where your dog would have enough room, it shouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise, they may allow you to purchase an additional ticket if the flight isn’t full. If it is full and your dog simply can’t fit, you might be given the option for her to travel in the cargo section or to change to a later, less full flight. If you have a large dog, it’s best to figure out the accommodations with the airline ahead of time.
One other point: under the ACAA, you do not have to put your assistance dog in a carrier or crate for the flight. However, if you choose to do so, the carrier becomes subject to FAA regulations about safely stowing items during taxi, takeoff, and landing.
A Few Logistics About Dogs and Air Travel
Not all dogs handle the noises and motion of flight very well, especially when they’re new to it. Yours may not show any interest in treats or a drink. That’s a perfectly normal reaction to feeling slightly stressed by the experience.
Limit your dog’s risk of digestive upset and needing to relieve herself on the plane by not feeding her for at least several hours beforehand. Give her just enough water to stave off thirst in the hours leading up to your flight, too.
Also, airplane restrooms aren’t particularly accommodating for people with dogs. They aren’t even particularly accommodating for people without dogs. Consider having the stewardess assist you in these situations.
Finally, it’s considerate to be prepared and willing to clean up after your dog to the best of your ability if she happens to have an accident on the plane.
Filing an Air Travel-Related Discrimination Complaint
If you believe commercial airline personnel discriminated against you on the basis of your disability, use this form to file an official complaint with the US Department of Transportation.
If you would like to file a complaint against TSA or other Federal security personnel you encountered at the airport, you may do so by mail. Send your detailed complaint to one or both of the following addresses:
Department of Homeland Security
Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Mail Stop #0800
245 Murray Lane, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20598
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
Director, Office of Civil Rights and Liberties
601 South 12th Street – West Tower, TSA-6
Arlington, Virginia 22202
Attn: External Programs Division
Always keep a copy of any complaint you filed, whether digital or by mail.
Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement: Air Travel Civil Rights Problems – Where to File a Complaint