Many Air Travelers With Disabilities Encounter Hurdles to Verify Service Dogs

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Many travelers with disabilities are encountering hurdles with a process to verify that their work dogs are acceptable to fly.

An illustration of a pistillate   aerial  traveler and a canine  that wears a service-dog motion   being prevented by gross  agents to proceed  boarding with her work  animal.
Credit...Glynis Sweeny

Debra Kamin

Aug. 22, 2023, 5:01 a.m. ET

Joanna Lubkin, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has chronic symptom and fatigue and relies connected her work dog, a 4-year-old achromatic Labrador named Sully, to prime up items she drops, property elevator buttons and brace her erstwhile her assemblage weakens. She ne'er travels without him.

In June, erstwhile she and Sully arrived astatine the Pittsburgh International Airport to alert location to Boston aft a conference, the cause astatine the JetBlue Airlines gross told her that determination were nary forms connected record certifying Sully arsenic a work dog, and refused to fto her board.

Since 2021, the Department of Transportation has required travelers with disabilities to capable retired a modular signifier earlier boarding an craft with their trained work animal, attesting to the dog’s health, behaviour and training. Before her formation to Pittsburgh connected Delta Air Lines, Ms. Lubkin, 37, had completed the D.O.T. signifier for some Delta and JetBlue and uploaded it to their websites. With Delta, she experienced nary issues.

But a week aboriginal she recovered herself stranded successful Pittsburgh, confused and frustrated. She did not cognize she was lone 1 of galore travelers with disabilities encountering hurdles with the verification process, and uncovering themselves stuck astatine the airdrome adjacent aft they had correctly verified their work dogs for aerial travel.

JetBlue is 1 of 4 airlines that uses a third-party — a small, Chicago-based institution called Open Doors Organization — to reappraisal the caller D.O.T. forms and contented approvals oregon denials connected their behalf. And erstwhile Ms. Lubkin arrived astatine her gross for her instrumentality formation home, she was told Open Doors had not verified her form, and she would not beryllium allowed to fly.

Angry and tired, Ms. Lubkin called a friend, who offered to thrust her 570 miles backmost to Boston.

“Flying is physically achy for maine and for a batch of people,” she said. “Making it that overmuch harder for america to question is conscionable unjust, and it doesn’t consciousness close to me.”


Joanna Lubkin has chronic symptom and fatigue and ne'er travels without her work dog, a 4-year-old achromatic laboratory named Sully.Credit...Erin Brennan Wallner

A JetBlue spokesperson acknowledged her concerns.

“We recognize that we request to guarantee amended consistency successful verifying paperwork during question connected each flights of a customer’s itinerary,” said Derek Dombrowski, the airline’s elder manager for firm communications.

Before the coronavirus, aerial travelers looking to bring an carnal into the compartment had to adhere to airlines’ idiosyncratic rules for flying with pets, which sometimes required the acquisition of a peculiar ticket. Fully trained work animals were exempt from immoderate charges.

Airlines accidental the 2021 regulations were needed aft a pandemic-related uptick of pets connected airplanes, galore of them untrained and presenting a hazard to travelers and morganatic work animals alike. There were besides a fig of incidents wherever passengers attempted to walk disconnected pets oregon emotional-support animals arsenic trained work animals. At the extremity of 2021, astir large airlines had declared they would nary longer judge emotional-support animals connected board, and the Transportation Department enactment distant caller rules for work animals.

Among the changes: Airlines tin necessitate users of work animals, which are defined arsenic dogs trained to execute a task straight related to an owner’s disability, to taxable a D.O.T. signifier attesting to the animal’s health, behaviour and training.

JetBlue, Allegiant, Sun Valley and Alaska Airlines person partnered with Open Doors to process the forms. Travelers upload their forms to the airlines’ websites, and the airlines past walk them connected to Open Doors, which verifies the legitimacy of the work canine by examining the signifier and sometimes calling the trainer, whose contacts are required connected the form, with further questions.

Other airlines, including American Airlines and United Airlines, reappraisal and o.k. the forms themselves.

Some canine trainers and disablement advocates accidental the caller rules whitethorn beryllium illegal.

After Ms. Lubkin filled retired her D.O.T. signifier and uploaded it to JetBlue’s website, much than a week earlier departure, she received an email from NEADS, the work canine enactment that trained Sully, letting her cognize they had been contacted by Open Doors regarding her signifier and she was “all set.”

But successful Pittsburgh, the gross cause couldn’t find immoderate connection from Open Doors successful her file.

“The information that a corp is making it truthful hard for idiosyncratic to get accommodations for their disablement — I see that discrimination,” Ms. Lubkin said.

Travelers connected different airlines person besides faced issues. In June, Ashley O’Connor, a stay-at-home parent of three, was anxious to alert location to Columbus, Ohio, from Myrtle Beach, S.C., with her son, Owen, and his caller work dog.

Owen, 4, has CHARGE syndrome — an acronym for a familial unwellness affecting the bosom and airways — and Téa, a German shepherd, was trained to alert radical astir her erstwhile Owen is astatine hazard of respiratory distress.

Three days earlier their instrumentality formation connected Allegiant Airlines, Ms. O’Connor, 30, filled retired the D.O.T. signifier connected the Allegiant’s website, but was told her exertion was denied due to the fact that she didn’t database the circumstantial tasks for which the canine is trained. She filled it retired again, resubmitted and past received a confirmation. An email from Open Doors came next, saying she could “request travel” from Allegiant. She did.

At the airdrome however, Ms. O’Connor was told determination were nary forms connected file. She tried to taxable them yet again with her phone, astatine 1 constituent pausing astatine the check-in antagonistic to suction Owen's tracheostomy tube. But she received a bid of mistake messages, and was yet told by the Allegiant gross cause that her exertion was denied.

She had to enlist the assistance of Owen’s great-grandparents, some successful their precocious 70s, to thrust Téa astir 10 hours to Columbus. She flew location unsocial with Owen.

“My evidently disabled kid was sitting successful a stroller adjacent to me,” she said of the incidental astatine the check-in counter. “There was nary compassion.”

Allegiant said that Ms. O’Connor’s exertion was held up owed to incomplete information, and that she did not pass the hose she was traveling with a work carnal until she arrived astatine the airport. She contests this.

“Open Doors Organization is simply a trusted nonprofit disablement advocacy organization,” a spokesperson with the bearer said. “This strategical concern has equipped Allegiant with amended tools to service the disablement community, allowing america to streamline the work carnal support process portion ensuring the information of each passengers and unit members.”


Owen O’Connor, and his caller work dog, Téa, who was trained to alert radical astir him erstwhile Owen is astatine hazard of respiratory distress.Credit...Ashley O'Connor

Open Doors has admitted that connection with the airlines astatine times has gone awry. But the organization’s founder, Eric Lipp, said the contented mostly stemmed from hose workers who lacked due training.

“We person had a mates of hiccups,” Mr. Lipp said. But erstwhile paperwork issues arise, helium added, hose workers should let customers with a wide disablement to board, oregon scope retired straight to Open Doors for guidance successful that moment.

"JetBlue and Allegiant instrumentality up 90 percent of our time,” helium said, adding that airlines should telephone the enactment for input earlier issuing a denial. “Sometimes the radical who enactment for the airlines conscionable bash stuff. And we don’t privation the radical astatine the airdrome to beryllium the ones making the decisions.”

The Air Carrier Access Act, passed successful 1986, requires airlines to let travelers with disabilities to committee a formation with their work animals. And it limits the questions airlines tin inquire astir a traveler's disablement arsenic well.

“There are definite reasons an hose tin contradict a work animal, specified arsenic if it’s not a canine oregon if they spot behavioral issues,” said Cait Malhiot, an lawyer with Marko Law, a instrumentality steadfast successful Detroit. But an hose can’t necessitate passengers to amusement immoderate circumstantial grooming for a dog, oregon that a canine beryllium trained lone by an accredited source.

Ashley Townsend, a 32-year-old societal worker, is unsighted and relies connected Lolly, a 3-year-old achromatic lab. In June, Ms. Townsend was invited to alert from her location successful Denver to a fund-raiser successful New York City for a guide-dog conference. The enactment booked her summons connected JetBlue, and Ms. Townsend called the bearer 2 days earlier her formation to guarantee she wouldn’t look issues boarding with Lolly. She was assured that she was each acceptable to fly.

But the adjacent day, Ms. Townsend utilized her surface scholar to look astatine JetBlue’s website. Only past did she spot that her D.O.T. form, which she was utilized to submitting, would person to beryllium reviewed by Open Doors earlier flying. She had flown conscionable 2 months earlier with Lolly connected a Southwest Airlines formation and not encountered an Open Doors review. When she received an automated connection that it would instrumentality 48 hours to person a response, she panicked — her formation was successful little than a day. She again called JetBlue, and aft hours connected hold, was informed that she had not completed the paperwork decently and would not beryllium allowed to fly.

She canceled her summons and purchased a caller formation connected United, which does not usage Open Doors. She and Lolly flew without issue.

JetBlue said the Open Doors concern had been enactment into spot due to the fact that of aggregate incidents of dogs being passed disconnected arsenic work animals connected flights, but past wreaking havoc successful the air, including biting unit members and relieving themselves connected the plane.

“We person developed a process to effort to separate decently trained work dogs traveling with a qualified idiosyncratic with a disablement from different dogs,” said Mr. Dombrowski, the airline’s spokesman.

Ms. Townsend said she understood the rules person been tightened, but she feels that the disablement assemblage is bearing the brunt of the work for an contented they did not cause.

“I’m faced with this load of proving that my work carnal is legitimate, alternatively of radical being held accountable for intentionally blurring that line,” she said.


Mason Wallner, 14, has autism and relies connected Zoe, a 65-pound goldendoodle successful moments of stress.Credit...Erin Brennan Wallner

In May, Erin Brennan Wallner, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based communications associate, and her household were near stranded successful Boston with their son’s work dog. Mason, 14, has autism and relies connected Zoe, a 65-pound goldendoodle successful moments of stress.

The household booked a abrogation to Boston and was unaware of the alteration successful the D.O.T. rules. So were the agents and unit connected their outbound JetBlue formation — they flew with Zoe from Jacksonville to Boston with nary issues. But erstwhile they arrived astatine the airdrome to instrumentality home, they were told they could not committee without an approved D.O.T. form.

Frantic, Ms. Wallner attempted to capable retired the signifier successful the airport. The household watched their formation depart without them, and 2 hours later, portion inactive hoping to beryllium rebooked that day, Ms. Wallner received an email from Open Doors stating that Zoe, who was trained by a institution called Off Leash K9 Training, did not suffice arsenic a work animal.

Open Doors, erstwhile contacted astir the situation, said that Zoe had been rejected due to the fact that Ms. Wallner had utilized vague connection to picture the dog’s training, alternatively than offering specifics connected the tasks the canine performs. Mr. Lipp, Open Doors’ founder, said his institution processes astir 120 forms a time and successful cases similar Ms. Wallner’s, helium ever attempts to interaction the trainer for much information.

But Zoe’s trainer, Matt Gregory, said helium ne'er received a telephone from Open Doors. The household ended up renting a car and driving 18 hours backmost to Jacksonville.

Ms. Wallner said that the information her household was allowed to alert to Boston successful the archetypal spot proved the strategy is not working.

“I recognize that plentifulness of radical instrumentality vantage of the situation,” she said. “But don’t you person a work to astatine slightest get america home?”

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