Ultimate Guide to Service Dogs on Planes [2022 Airline Rules]

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This covers both physical impairments, commonly used by people with limited mobility or vision impairment, as well as those with mental impairments. In fact, the DOT’s new rules also specifically mention “psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental” disabilities. Psychiatric service dogs are commonly used by people with conditions such as severe depression, anxiety, PTSD, and autism. 

Training and Certifying a Service Dog

Earlier we discussed a public access test. This isn’t a specific test conducted by any particular organization, but rather a way to ensure your service dog can perform at the level necessary for the handler.

In fact, a service dog does not need to be trained by any specific third-party trainer, school, or organization. The DOT notes that “service animal users are free to train their own dogs to perform a task or function for them.” 

Bottom Line: Any registrations and/or certifications for service dogs are always optional and are not mandatory.

There are some items your dog can wear, such as a harness, tag, or vest, or you may have a certificate or ID card, all of which are frequently used by service dog owners to signal to members of the public that their service dog is on-duty. 

If your disability is not readily apparent, these can often protect you from intrusive questioning by TSA or airline staff. Just remember, having one of these items isn’t enough to qualify your dog as a service dog — it’s just 1 factor the DOT says airlines can use to help determine whether a dog can be considered a service dog or not. We’ll discuss all of these in more detail below.

What About Size or Breed-specific Considerations?

The DOT doesn’t set a weight limit for service dogs but notes that airlines can require that a service animal fit within the handler’s foot space or on the passenger’s lap. Most importantly, the DOT recognizes all types of dogs as service dogs and does not allow airlines to set restrictions based on specific breeds.

If your service animal is larger than can comfortably be accommodated, the new rules require the airline to move the owner and the service dog to another seat within the same class of service, if possible (e.g., to a row with an open seat or bulkhead seating).

If no accommodations can be made, the airline is required to offer the opportunity to transport the service dog in the cargo hold free of charge (not ideal!) or to travel on a later flight. 

Can I Travel With More Than 1 Service Dog?

You can travel with 2 service dogs, according to the DOT’s new guidelines. Each of these dogs may serve a different purpose, but they must still both fit in the handler’s foot space or lap.

This can make it harder for people with 2 large service dogs, so it might be worth taking additional steps, such as purchasing an additional ticket, to ensure service dogs can be accommodated without the risk of them having to travel in the cargo hold — or being bumped from multiple flights.

Mandatory DOT Paperwork

You’ll need to complete the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Service Animal Air Transportation Form and submit it to your respective airline (links below) at least 48 hours before your flight. If the reservation is made within 48 hours of the flight, the form can be submitted before the flight or at the gate.

This form includes information about:

  • Animal health
  • Animal training and behavior
  • Basic information about the owner and the animal
  • Other assurances

If your flight is longer than 8 hours, you’ll also need to complete the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Service Animal Relief Attestation Form before your flight as well.

This form states that your service dog will either:

  • Not need to relieve itself while on the flight
  • Can relieve itself during the flight without creating a health or sanitation issue (the example it gives is via the use of a doggie diaper)

These are both federal forms, so, as the DOT states, it is considered a federal crime to “make materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, entries, or representations knowingly and willfully” when completing either.

Service Dog Verification by Airline

Since there are no official organizations or forms to certify your dog as a service dog, how does an airline confirm that your dog is indeed a service dog?

In addition to reviewing the DOT form, which we just discussed, the DOT gives airlines 3 ways to determine whether someone is traveling with a genuine service animal:

  • Ask whether the service dog is required to accompany you because of a disability and what specific tasks the animal has been trained to perform. However, for privacy reasons, the airline cannot ask specific questions about your disability.
  • Observe the behavior of the service dog. This includes observing the temperament of the service dog and its interaction with you and other passengers.
  • Look at any harness, vest, or tags your service dog may be wearing, or any certificate.
  • While all airlines are required to accommodate service dogs, each airline may handle the process slightly differently. For example, some airlines have a link on their website where you can submit the form directly, but other airlines only accept the forms by email. Here are some handy links for you to look at:

    • Alaska Airlines
    • American Airlines
    • Delta Air Lines
    • Frontier Airlines
    • Hawaiian Airlines
    • JetBlue Airways
    • Southwest Airlines
    • Spirit Airlines
    • United Airlines

    What About Places With Additional Restrictions?

    These DOT rules generally only cover domestic travel, but there are a few places, like international destinations and Hawaii, that impose additional restrictions.

    Hawaii

    Hawaii requires that service animals travel with a “valid animal health certificate” to enter from other U.S. states. It must be from your dog’s veterinarian and dated 14 days prior to arrival. The State of Hawaii notes that service animals are exempt from any quarantine requirements, but “must complete pre-shipment requirements including having a current rabies vaccination, passing an OIE-FAVN rabies blood test prior to arrival in Hawaii with > 0.5 IU/ml and certification.”

    Also, note that Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) is the only port of entry for all dogs and cats entering Hawaii unless a valid Neighbor Island Inspection Permit has been issued by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

    International Destinations

    Be aware that not all countries accept animals and, unfortunately, just because service animals are protected here in the U.S. does not mean that they are in other countries. You are ultimately responsible for ensuring you comply with all requirements and complete any documents necessary to travel with animals to your destination country.

    What To Expect at the Airport

    By the time you arrive at the airport, you’ve probably already submitted the required DOT Transportation Form (remember, you have to submit this at least 48 hours before your flight).

    But if you booked your flight less than 48 hours before, bring it along and be ready to submit it to your airline at the airport. Either way, it’s good to keep a paper or digital copy handy in case you are asked to provide it again.

    Image Credit: Department of Transportation

    It’s a good idea to arrive earlier than usual if you travel with a service dog. Confirm at your airline’s check-in counter to ensure they have your DOT Transportation Form. Airline staff may also observe your service dog at this point to ensure it is well-behaved and under your control.

    Staff may inspect your dog’s ID cards, leash, tags, etc., and will ensure that your dog is harnessed (it should remain so at the airport and on your flight).

    As we noted earlier, airport workers and airline staff can verify you have a service dog by asking 2 questions: 

  • Is the service dog required because of a disability?
  • What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
  • Per the DOT, these are the only questions that you are allowed to be asked. You have a right to privacy as a service dog owner. 

    TSA Concerns

    Image Credit: The Guide Dog Foundation, Inc. via TSA

    Another anxiety-inducing part of airport travel is taking your service dog through TSA security checkpoints. The good news is that TSA will NEVER separate you from your service animal.

    There are a lot of things to consider here, so be sure to check out our guide on flying with a disability for a full breakdown of what to expect when going through security.

    TSA also has a handy FAQ section to help ease your concerns.

    Airport Relief Areas

    Image Credit: Burlington International Airport – BTV

    A common concern for service dog owners is having access to pet relief areas. The spaces vary in quality based on the airport, but the good news is that providing access to a pet-relief area (both inside and outside of the terminal) is a requirement.

    » Related: The Top 10 Most Pet-Friendly Airports in the U.S. [Study]

    These Service Animal Relief Areas (or SARAs) have minimum requirements set forth by the FAA and must include space to accommodate a wheelchair, as well as other sanitation standards.

    If you are having trouble locating a SARA, find any airport or airline staff member to ask them where it’s located.

    Inflight Rules

    While you’re on the plane, DOT states that the airline can require the service dog to be harnessed or otherwise restrained — even if this might interfere with the service animal’s work. Note that this is a stricter approach than the ADA, which states that a disabled person is allowed to use voice commands or other signals where appropriate. 

    In addition, as previously noted, all service dogs must be well-behaved during the flight, fit in the space allocated to them, and not be disruptive. This usually translates to the dog not barking, jumping on others, acting aggressively, or relieving itself in the open. 

    Ultimately, if the service dog causes any damage to the airplane cabin, the owner is responsible for the damages and can even be banned from future flights.

    Reasons Airlines Can Ban or Deny Boarding for a Service Dog

    As we just mentioned, the DOT spells out a few instances in which an airline can deny boarding or ban a service animal from future flights: 

  • Service dog violates safety requirements: There may be instances where the service dog is too big or cannot otherwise be accommodated on a flight. This may result in a denial of boarding, but you and your service dog can typically be bumped to a later flight.
  • Service dog poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others: Airlines must make an “individualized assessment” of the service dog in question solely based on their interactions at the airport and on the plane. The dog’s breed cannot be the determining factor for this decision.
  • The service dog causes a significant disruption in the cabin or at airport gate areas: If an airline staff member observes your service dog showing that they are not properly trained, your service dog can be denied boarding. The airline also has to consider whether any mitigating measures can be taken (such as using a muzzle to silence a barking dog).
  • Transport would violate health requirements: Transporting service animals is not allowed in all territories or countries or may require you to comply with additional health and safety regulations (such as certain vaccinations). If you do not comply, your service dog may be denied boarding.
  • The service dog user has not completed/submitted necessary documentation: This refers to the same DOT transport and relief forms (for longer flights) that we discussed in detail above. All documentation must be submitted before boarding the flight. 
  • Note that if your service dog is not able to be accommodated for any reason, any airline must provide a written statement to you describing those reasons within 10 days. 

    If You Encounter Problems

    When traveling with your service dog, if you believe your rights under the Air Carrier Access Act are being or have been violated, ask to speak with a Complaints Resolution Official (or CRO). Per the DOT, a CRO “is the airline’s expert on disability-related issues in air travel.”

    Bottom Line: Airlines are required to make a CRO available to you in person at the airport or by telephone — at no cost to you.

    You can also file a consumer complaint directly with the DOT online or via phone at (202) 366-2220 Monday through Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST.

    Helpful Tips for Traveling With a Service Animal

    Image Credit: Canine Companions

    Before you head to the airport, here are a few key things to remember.

    Health and Safety

    Depending on your destination, it may be necessary to visit your vet before your travel date to ensure your dog is healthy and up-to-date on vaccinations. At a minimum, the DOT’s transport form will require you to certify your service dog is vaccinated and will also ask for your vet’s contact information.

    Gear

    Don’t forget your service dog’s vest, tags, ID card, harness, and other accessories. In addition, a leash or harness will not only help you navigate a busy airport and crowded airplane cabin, but the airline can also insist that your service dog is properly restrained and under your control at all times. 

    Don’t forget to pack everything your service dog might need for your trip as well, including medication, food, treats, water, food dishes, and other grooming products. 

    Food and Drink

    Try to limit the food and drink you provide your service dog before a flight as they may not have access to relief areas for quite some time. In addition, don’t forget to use the service animal relief areas before boarding, if possible.

    Arrive Early

    It never hurts to arrive a few hours early at the airport when traveling with a service dog. This can help relieve some of the anxiety, especially if there are unexpected obstacles like a long security line or a gate change. 

    Final Thoughts

    Whether you’re an experienced service dog owner who has flown with it for years, or you’re planning for your first flight with your service dog, we hope you found this guide useful, especially in light of the recent DOT changes.

    Refer to this guide often to remind yourself of what to expect when flying with your service dog, including all of the required documentation, and to ensure you’re educated about all of the accommodations you and your dog are entitled to receive — both at the airport and in the air.

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