So you’ve decided to take the leap and travel by air with your service dog. It is both exhilarating and intimidating all at once. But don’t let worry get to you. Knowing the ins and outs of airline travel with your service dog can allay your fears and help you feel like frequent fliers.
First a little bit of information. There are multiple entities that govern the different parts of your journey. The airport, which is divided into the non-secure or public area, the secure area (beyond TSA screening), and the airlines. The airport itself is under the jurisdiction of either homeland security or local law enforcement or maybe a joint operation. TSA (Transportation Security Administration) is in charge of security screening. If you need assistance, there is always a uniformed security agent available. The airlines are governed by the Air Carrier Access Act. Flying with your service dog is also covered by the ACAA.
So let’s get to the nuts and bolts of flying the friendly skies with your SD!
Booking a Flight:
*Check out the airline’s website ahead of time for information on baggage, disability information, service dogs, and boarding. You will find links at the bottom of this article.
1. Call and make your reservation as you would for any flight.
2. If you feel you need special assistance due to your disability for boarding and making connections you can have this added to your electronic file. Additionally, make certain that the words “Service Dog” are notated on your ticket and boarding pass.
3. To get assistance with connections between flights, call TSA Cares at (1-855-787-2227) to make arrangements for a plane to plane connection escort along with a potty stop for your dog. It is recommended to call 72 hours in advance for assistance or questions. The helpline is available 9 AM to 9 PM EST, excluding federal holidays.
4. For booking seating choices, you may use Seat Guru to view what options are available on your flight and have maximum space. Remember exit rows are not an option when flying with a service dog.
Booking a Flight with a Psychiatric Service Dog:
1. If your dog’s function is primarily psychiatric, whether it is a primary or dual trained dog, specific rules for the airlines apply according to the ACAA.
2. You must present a letter to the airline which contains the following information:
A. Current documentation (no older than one year from the flight) on a licensed mental health clinical professional’s letterhead (psychiatrist, licensed clinical social worker, etc) who is specifically treating the individual’s mental or emotional issue.
B. The passenger has a disability that is recognized is the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders).
C. The passenger needs the animal as an accommodation for emotional support for air travel and/or at the destination.
D. The individual providing the assessment is a licensed mental health professional and the person being assessed is under his/her care.
E. The date and type of the mental health professional’s license and the state or jurisdiction in which it was issued are included.
Here is an excellent sample form for someone presenting a letter to an airline for a psychiatric service dog. (https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/specialneeds/disabilities/support-animal-form.html )
This letter is required by ACAA, which is the law which governs flying into and out of the US at this time.
2. Call the specific airline for their procedures and/or paperwork for psychiatric service dogs. Usually, they require turning in a copy of the letter 48 hours in advance and/ or completing a form. It is also good to bring a copy of your letter with you when you arrive at the airport in case of any issues.
What can I bring:
Check with the airline about the number of bags, as well as size and weight restrictions. They will also have specific information about restricted items. For medical items, check this helpful link that assists you with what to pack and what you may carry on the plane:
Your service dog may have one free carry on if needed with supplies just for your SD. Dog food is allowed if it is identified and sealed. You may not pack anything for yourself in your service dog’s carry on.
The night before your flight:
1. Pack all but your non-essential items.
2. Plan your route to the airport.
3. Locate potty relief areas at the airport for your SD and bookmark them.
4. Put important numbers (DOT Hotline – 202-366-4000 and TSA Cares – 1-855-787-2227 into your phone).
5. Make certain your tickets and important papers are accessible and safely stashed to take with you.
6. Have a small amount of handy cash for parking and coffee.
Arriving at the airport:
It is suggested that you arrive at least two and a half hours before your scheduled flight. It may take you time to navigate the airport. You may need extra time to check in and check bags that will not be carried on the flight with you. You may want to collect your boarding passes and discuss pre-boarding for special needs passengers. Make sure the word “Service Dog” is notated on your boarding pass if you are just now getting one. You may need to locate a potty relief area for your service dog. If needed, call and confirm your TSA Cares escort between connections while waiting for your first flight.
Going through Security:
Going through security may seem intimidating. Just remember that these individuals are doing their jobs. It is your job to know your rights. You do NOT have to remove your dog’s gear. (Just my two cents, but I would never remove my service dog’s gear on the slim chance that s/he got spooked and chose to run.) You may walk through together or separately. A metal-free slip lead can be a helpful tool for going through security.
If you or your SD alarms, you will undergo further screening and a pat down. If you or your SD alarm, do not make contact with your SD. Allow security to complete their screening process.
If you are asked to remove your dog’s gear or be separated from your SD, politely ask for a supervisor and show them this link: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures.
If you choose to start a conversation with assistance because you are anxious, nonverbal or your disability causes you to need another modality to communicate, a TSA notification card ( https://www.tsa.gov/sites/default/files/disability_notification_card_508.pdf ) may be a tool for you.
Based on your needs and abilities, it is important to have discussed pre-boarding with an agent if it is something you need. Many individuals with service dogs do choose to preboard. It is a reasonable accommodation. All airlines have procedures for this. Ask about preboarding when you get your boarding pass. Remember to request the words “Service Dog” on your boarding pass.
During the flight, your Service Dog should remain at your feet or on your lap if it is under the size of a toddler (unless tasking). It should be calm, quiet and not disturb others. Service dogs should observe their usual good manners and obedience during the flight, as well as before and after.
If you need assistance collecting your carry on baggage from the overhead bins due to your disability, plan ahead and request assistance. If you are being met by a TSA escort, who will assist you to meet your next plane connection, speaking with the airline attendants about your situation may help you to relieve any anxiety and may assist you in locating your escort efficiently.
Safe travels. Enjoy your trip and create wonderful memories!
Additional resources should you care to review them:
Individual Airline Service Animal Information
American Airlines: https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/special-assistance/service-animals.jsp
Frontier Airlines: https://www.flyfrontier.com/travel-information/special-services/