Thursday, November 18, 2010

Traveling with a service animal, rules and relief areas

In the airline and travel industries, the service animal rules and stories seem to mutate by the week, and I hope as the stories worsen, we'll see some long-needed intervention by the government to certify, regulate, and generally bring some control back to an issue that is slowly careening out of control.  Pets are being masked as service animals of all species, and the handlers of these pets often do not have responsible control of the animals, making it harder on those who do travel with bonifide working dogs.  Stories of dog fights, mistreated businesses, and animal accidents increase yearly, so it's inevitable that the US government takes some strides in a creating a better system of balanced control.  Until then, here are some of the old and new rules as well as progress in animal relief areas that is currently worth mention.  As ones that used to travel with a service animal, this topic is very close to our heart, and that said, we hope that if you do travel with an animal that you have trained yourself, as we did, that you do so responsibly. 

Existing Rules: 
*  Airlines can not ask passengers what their disability is, but they can ask what the service animal does for the individual, which will briefly touch on that person's special needs (and therefore eluding to their disability).
*  Airlines are required to provide service animal relief areas and must cooperate with airport operators to make these areas accessible and readily available for both arriving and connecting passengers.
TSA will expedite passengers to and from outdoor relief areas if they are on the other side of security and a passenger needs to relieve the service animal during a connecting flight.

Newest Rule:
*  Passengers traveling with "emotional support animals" (which are not currently defined the same as a service animal) must give the airline 48 hours advance notice and provide a letter of verification and special need from their doctor.

International Rules: 
Many countries have very strict rules regarding animals and traveling with pets, and no matter what the laws are in the US, as well as no matter whether the new 382 ruling requires their airlines to comply with our rules, if the country's existing laws prohibit animals in some way, they prohibit US travelers with service animals as well and are awarded a "conflict of law waiver" in regard to following 382. Of note, the Philippines, Jamaica, and Mexico have already received their conflict of law waivers, and do not, nor likely will soon, allow service animals into their countries.

Animal Relief Areas have been created in most airports thanks to 382.  However not all hub airports have a great solution for connecting travelers as of yet.  The airport that seems to have excelled the most is Philadelphia, with 7 relief areas just outside every TSA checkpoint.  Seattle has created one inside that they're expanding upon, (currently it's just linoleum, but at least it's inside the terminal).  Most airports have been adding this information to their maps online, and some airlines have been adding the information to their inflight magazine maps as well. 

The biggest struggle seems to be with TSA allowing them to be "safe-side" (within the TSA-cleared areas), as the rules are tight on how close non-employees can be to an active tarmac, as well as what permitted areas and corridors of the safe-side they can utilize.  However more and more airports are exploring creative options as the needs increase.

The Open Doors Organization continues to work with the U.S. Access Board on a guidelines publication and hopes to release that sometime in 2011.

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