(46) From Travel Log to Travel Dog

Miss Molly profile

Golly, Miss Molly

A blog about a service dog and her veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the veteran and the family caregiver)

Flying with Your Service Dog

Spending holidays with family or friends compels many veterans with service dogs to fly to their destinations. Airplanes, however, remind veterans of war or represent crowded, confined spaces that induce panic or anxiety attacks. For my veteran, he jumped with 101st Airborne and parachuted with the Seabees off the coast of Vietnam. Rough flying conditions left him never wanting to fly again. In fact, for as long as we’ve been together, we have only flown a couple of times—both of which took a toll on him. With Molly, we felt flying would be possible. There is one obvious problem—kind of like the elephant in the room—her size. Could you imagine trying to stuff a 135-pound service dog under your seat? Nonetheless, Molly serves as William’s service dog for a legitimate disability. His civil rights include her accompanying him in the cabin of an airplane.

Boarding Miss Molly

I’ve avoided this discussion in the blog because we have never flown with Molly. In fact, our concerns about flying with such a large service dog prompted us to look at boarding options. We found that many of the boarding kennels in our area cannot accommodate such a large animal on holidays. The reason expressed for rejecting her as a tenant dealt with the number of dogs taken in over the holidays and lack of space, which requires two dog runs rather than just one.

Driving Miss Molly

When considering driving, I no longer wanted to use my vehicle for long trips because of the mileage and lack of comfortable space for Molly. From the tip of her paw to her back end, she exceeds the length of my car. William’s car bodes less favorably with more space restriction. Consequently, we likely will rent a large vehicle and drive with Molly. We found that racking up the miles on a rental car and spending a couple of nights on the road still came in under the cost to fly. As well, I’ve seen how ignorant people are when it comes to access in public places to service dogs. Just flying is enough to trigger a PTSD attack but adding to that a disgruntled passenger, who doesn’t want to be around dogs, and suddenly the trip isn’t fun anymore.

 Air Carrier Access Act

For those of you with no choice but to fly or for those who prefer to fly with their service dog, I wanted to provide you with information about your rights. Air travel is regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and defined in the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA) and not under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). ACAA  allows you to fly with your service animal at no additional cost beyond your ticket and related personal fees. The dog is required to sit on the floor in your foot space. If the dog obstructs the aisle or inconveniences another patron, the airline is required to relocate you and the dog—and not to the cargo bay. The airline must provide you and your animal an alternate seat where your dog fits such as on the floor of a bulkhead seat. (I think Miss Molly would need a whole row of bulkhead seats!)

As with ADA, someone’s complaint of allergies to a dog, cultural objections, or fear of dogs does not alter your rights to public access. Airlines are encouraged to accommodate the other passenger but may not boot you and your dog from the airplane for these reasons. Also, consistent with ADA, the presence of your service dog cannot fundamentally alter the way the airline does business. I have not found an example of what this might mean on an airplane. We discussed this issue as a basis for excluding a service dog from a sterile medical environment but how a dog might alter the business of an airplane, I haven’t figured out yet.

Given Molly’s size, I searched for a clause that might exclude her from the cabin of an airplane. What I found was the opposite—lack of available foot space is not a reason to exclude a service dog from the cabin.

The rules for traveling are somewhat confusing in places for a novice like me, who has never flown with a service dog. For example, the airline has the right to ask additional questions of a handler that a business cannot under ADA. As well, emotional support dogs (do not have public access rights under ADA) may accompany a handler but the airline has additional rights to confirm that the dog meets the definition of an emotional support dog.

The Department of Transportation has a hotline you can call for questions about flying with your service dog. The number is 1-800-778-4838 or 1-800-455-9880 for TTY.

I am providing you with links for more information, as I cannot squeeze all of this into one Molly blog.

Links for Information on Flying With Your Service Dog

http://www.nal.usda.gov/awic/newsletters/v7n2/7n2hende.htm for an easy-to-understand summary of the ACAA by the Animal Welfare Information Center

http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?tpl=/ecfrbrowse/Title14/14cfr382_main_02.tpl for the Code of Federal Regulations regarding disability and service dog access to airlines, as updated December 1, 2014

http://www.southwestada.org/html/guide_to/acaa.html  for information on how to file a complaint and a list of airline links for both domestic and international carriers to confirm the airlines’ policies about disability accommodations before you fly

http://www.iaadp.org/usdot-may2008-airline-guidance.html#guid or the parent page at http://www.iaadp.org/airline.html, which are other good sources, explaining your rights; these include discussion about pre-boarding, what questions to ask the airline when you book your flight, and how to prepare for your trip with your dog.

Hopefully, the elephant in the room isn’t so big any more. But the question is: Can the elephant fly?

Post your Comments: 

Have you flown with your service dog and would you be willing to share your story? Please comment below or fill out this form so I can contact you.

About the blogger

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her grandchildren.