by Kim Charlson
The American Council of the Blind (ACB) has long advocated for the rights of travelers with guide dogs in the skies. However, recent policies undertaken by a few airlines have cast a cloud on travelers with service animals, threatening equal access to the same level of service for all other passengers.
In recent years, more and more fake service animals are appearing on airplanes, with owners claiming they are service or emotional support dogs. The problem has persisted as passengers try to avoid expensive fees for flying with their pets. Some have even gone as far as to try to challenge airlines and see how far they can go by trying to bring strange and exotic animals like turkeys and peacocks onto the plane. The issue has resulted in pervasive misbehavior of animals, destruction of property, and in some cases, injury to other passengers. Such actions have challenged the Department of Transportation’s definition of what constitutes service and emotional support animals under the Air Carrier Access Act — commonly referred to as the ADA of the skies.
ACB has been actively working with the Department of Transportation, disability rights advocates, and airlines to find a solution that curtails fraud and abuse. We were at the table with all the above for six months in 2016, during negotiations between airlines and consumer advocates at the request of Congress. However, those negotiations failed to identify a compromise.
Fast-forward 18 months, and ACB was extremely surprised to learn of Delta Air Lines’ new policy restricting access for service and emotional support animals. The policy — accessed via the link shared at the end of this article — establishes measures that create significant hoops for travelers with guide dogs, while doing very little to stop anyone from going online and downloading false documents asserting their pet is a service animal. The new policy, which took effect March 1st, denies access to easy entry into airports, requiring 48-hour notice and check-in at airline counters before passing through security. It also requires medical forms to be uploaded to Delta’s website in advance of travel.
The new policy does little to punish wrongdoers, and instead takes significant steps toward making travel more burdensome for passengers who are blind and rely on the use of guide dogs. We acknowledge that fake service dogs are a problem, but the solution should not penalize the population of legitimate service dog handlers and make it burdensome for guide dog teams to travel freely. ACB strongly opposes any policy that creates an undue burden for passengers with service animals and denies them equal access to the same level of service that other passengers receive. At no point during Delta’s deliberation did they reach out to ACB or our affiliate, Guide Dog Users, Inc., which is one of the nation’s leading advocacy groups representing the oldest and most recognized use of service animals. Both GDUI and ACB were engaged in drafting a variety of more reasonable solutions during the 2016 negotiations, and our hope is that Delta and other airlines will work with leading consumer advocacy groups to assure that any needed policies are done in a thoughtful and constructive manner that protects equal access while reducing fraud and abuse.
ACB encourages passengers with guide dogs to share their concerns and any issues while flying by contacting the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division. Let them know you believe Delta’s new policy creates undue burdens and denies equal access to service. They can be reached at (202) 366-2220, or online at https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint. Be persistent. (Editor’s note: Accessibility issues involving the complaint website have been raised with the Department of Transportation.)
To learn more about the new Delta policies, read the Delta press release at https://news.delta.com/delta-introduces-enhanced-requirements-customers-traveling-service-or-support-animals-effective.
To read GDUI’s response, visit https://guidedogusersinc.org/delta-airlines-released-information-regarding-revised-policies-concerning-service-emotional-support-animals-fly-companions-inside-cabins-delta-planes/.
ACB has already engaged in meetings with the Department of Transportation and airlines pursuing policy changes with regard to service animals. We will continue to keep our members updated on this issue as we push for equal access in the sky.
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by Kim Charlson