Kaline stands in harness in front of the door to the new, inside-security, relief area at San Francisco International Airport.
Once you’re through security, service dogs and ESAs are covered under the ACAA (some helpful links can be found here). Each airport has to have a relief area, but not necessarily in a convenient location. More and more airports are putting these areas inside of security, which is very helpful. Regardless of where the area is, make sure your dog has an opportunity to relieve as close to flight time as possible. Be alert throughout the airport for pets. While some ESAs have lovely manners, many don’t, and no training whatsoever is required for them to fly without crate, carrier, or muzzle in the cabin. Their owners are also not required to keep them on a short leash. Give any and all dogs you see plenty of space (many working K9s in airports aren’t safe for your service dog to be near).
On the plane, the ACAA requires airlines to accommodate you and your service dog. That means giving you a seat in bulkhead, if you request it, or making sure you’re not seated in bulkhead, if that is your preference. Many airlines will tell handlers they’re required to sit in bulkhead, which is completely untrue. It’s up to you, and it’s important for you to stand up for yourself and make sure you’re located in a seat that is the most beneficial for you and your service dog.
Kaline snoozing on one of our flights where we were lucky enough to have an empty middle seat. While airlines aren’t obligated to offer an empty middle seat, flight attendants are often happy to make it happen if the flight isn’t full.
I personally prefer a window seat in the economy section with more legroom. Window seats mean that no one will be stepping over your dog to get out, and the extra legroom means that Kaline has enough room to swivel once he’s into the row. In some regular economy rows, he physically cannot make the turn so that instead of being side-on to me, he faces me and can lie almost fully under the seat in front of me. Most bulkhead rows have less room than regular rows for your dog and your feet, but it’s always a good idea to confirm using a site like seatguru.com. Occasionally bulkhead rows have a ton of space.
The ACAA also obligates airlines to move your traveling companion to the seat next to you, assuming that person will be helping you in any way on the plane. In the same way that you cannot be charged for upgrading to a seat that accommodates your SD (airlines like to upcharge for an inch more of legroom, or bulkhead seating), neither can the airline charge your companion for his or her move. While I’ve not had to have this argument in quite a while, having flown exclusively Delta for a couple years now, when I first flew with Juno I had to read the relevant section of the ACAA on a loop to agents from United and Virgin Airlines before they would finally admit that federal law applied to them.
"If you prepare, you can reduce some of the stress that comes with air travel and also help to smooth the way for anyone else traveling after you."
The more of this you can do ahead of time, with a ticketing agent, the better. It’s always easier to change your online-booked seats over the phone just after you’ve booked them, rather than to wait and try to get this done at the gate. Even easier is just booking your seat(s) through your airline’s disability hotline. These are usually the people who have been educated on the ACAA and you will have the easiest time dealing with them.
Once at the gate, you have every right, and it is highly advisable, to board early. As a service dog handler, you are a person who needs extra time. Getting Kaline and myself settled is always a bit of a procedure—I go into the row, have him stand by the middle seat, and put his mat down. Then I remove his mobility harness and replace it with a cape of some kind. He squishes himself into the space at my feet, facing me. Then I have to get everything we might need for the flight—books, jammies for Kaline, any treats, snacks for me, etc.—out of my backpack before my travel buddy can put it up in the bin and then get him or herself settled as well.
We are fairly efficient at this but it does still take time, so it’s much better to block three or four people in the aisle for a few minutes than to try and do this with fifty people behind you clamoring to move forward. Plus, if you are in the window seat, getting settled early means most of the passengers won’t even see your service dog, and you won’t have to play Twenty Questions with a line of 100 people.
Flying with a service dog is like everything else in life with a service dog. You have to be prepared to advocate for yourself, or have someone with you advocate for you. Everything you do in terms of complying with illegal demands is going to affect all the handlers coming along behind you. If you prepare, you can reduce some of the stress that comes with air travel and also help to smooth the way for anyone else traveling after you.
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