An Open Letter to All Airlines Regarding Service Dogs

Jennifer Norris and Onyx

Dear Airline Carriers,

Last night I learned that one of my fellow veterans was denied access to board a plane in Los Angeles, California because he couldn’t produce paperwork for his service dog. First of all, there is no official paperwork. Secondly, by federal law you are not supposed to ask us for paperwork, let alone deny us access to public transportation. This veteran was on a return trip from LA with his wife after winning service dog of the year from the American Humane Association.

I haven’t flown the airlines for over a year for fear of this very thing happening. I keep up with the news and have seen time and time again how you have challenged other veterans with PTSD. This scares me to death. I definitely am not an entitled American but in this circumstance I demand that the airlines pull their shit together for the sake of veterans and others who travel with their service dogs. When you challenge us, you are putting us in a difficult position and making the Post Traumatic Stress worse.

I don’t have a service dog because I think it’s fun to tell the world I have a “disability”. I have a service dog to help me cope with PTSD, mostly hypervigilance and anxiety. It’s not something I want to talk to people about. After stressing to get to the airport on time and going through airport security, I don’t have the energy to deal with incompetence. As a matter of fact I don’t want to deal with anyone because it takes all my energy to get through this experience. (Learn more about PTSD and the Brain)

Economy SeatInstead what I encounter regularly from the airlines is the left hand not talking to the right hand. No matter how many times I call to request bulkhead seating for my service dog, you get it wrong at the gate. It’s as if you don’t care anymore and if a paying customer has snagged up those seats, then I am shit out of luck. I am then asked to sit in coach (which I don’t mind at all) but my dog has a hard time fitting under the seat in front of me especially on the smaller planes. We try to make it work because we don’t want any additional stress but then I get flack from the airline attendants because technically it is against regulation if the dog does not fit completely under the seat in front of you.

Huh?!? I asked for bulkhead seating. The reservations folks, the disability assistance office, and the folks at the gate apparently don’t talk to one another because every time I find myself in a position having to advocate for what I had already coordinated on the phone in advance. So because they don’t care about what a service dog owner needs, I find myself in coach squeezing my dog under a seat and getting flack from an airline attendant who should have helped me get the seating I had requested to begin with. What is going on? Is the additional money you get for those seats worth more then the stress you cause us?

I haven’t felt the same about flying since I was detained by TSA in New Mexico for a false positive reading in 2013. Apparently whatever was on my hands triggered a false positive leading TSA agents to treat me like a would be criminal. The worse thing you can do to someone with PTSD is detain them against their will considering that is why I have PTSD to begin with.  Since that encounter I have learned about TSA Cares, which is a program designed specifically to help those with disabilities cope with the overwhelming out of control feeling we experience trying to navigate the airports.

We are not asking for much. I just want to be left alone. Instead I find myself dealing with the military and the Veteran Affairs all over again. Here we go with another bureaucracy mired down with red tape that pushes and pulls me around because the right hand doesn’t talk to the left. TSA has come up with a remedy to help us. Would you please do the same and consider the following?

  • At the time of ticket purchasing, give us an option to choose bulkhead seating for our service dogs.
  • If you can’t do that then give your disability assistance office the power to ensure we get bulkhead seating for the service dog.
  • Learn what the service dog laws are so you are not challenging me, the person with Post Traumatic Stress, who did everything they were supposed to do to ensure smooth sailing.
  • If you mess up the bulkhead seating, have your folks at the gate fix it for us. The last few times I flew and had to deal with your mistakes, I was told that a paying customer had purchased those seats so I was shit out of luck.
  • If you do mess up and I am required to sit in coach and stuff my dog under the seat in front of me, don’t act like I am doing something wrong because the dog does not fit completely under the seat in front of me. I am waiting for the day one of the airline attendants tells me I can’t fly because the dog does not fit under the seat in front of me. The reason I am sitting there is because the folks at reservations, the disability assistance office, and the people at the gate don’t coordinate the bulkhead seating request for those of us traveling with service dogs.
  • Lastly, please issue an apology to all persons with disabilities and assure us that we are welcome to fly on your public transportation, service dog and all. It’s not our fault that your company does not have a good grasp on the laws and needs of people with disabilities.

In closing, I haven’t been flying lately because your companies are causing me stress. I am constantly having to advocate for myself when I do choose to fly and it is exhausting. I just want TSA Cares to walk me through security and then help me get to my gate. All we need from you is a promise that we can get on the plane and sit in the requested bulkhead seating. And if you mess it up, please do not give us crap because we can’t stuff our dogs under the seat in front of us. We are doing nothing wrong. We are trying to cope with your lack of knowledge about the laws and lack of coordination on the part of your reservation systems. Your disregard for the law and the accommodations requested is making the PTSD worse. My service dog has made it possible for me to regain independence and travel by myself again. Please help us flourish in our efforts to become one with society.


Jennifer and Onyx

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to All Airlines Regarding Service Dogs

  1. I saw this all over the news and it really is horrible. I absolutely think there needs to be a BETTER, universal policy on air travel with service dogs, I also think there should be a federal government licensing or even each state system. Not to make it harder on those with service dogs, but because I’ve seen fake dogs around and until there is a required certification, it will just get worse with people faking it (especially on airlines) and with airlines doing anything in their legal ability to crack down on it. But I do want to share the positive story. My son has Asperger Syndrome, which is now just part of the Autism Spectrum. He has a service dog and this dog is our life line. In 2015 we have flown Southwest, Us Air, Delta and United (I buy whatever ticket is cheaper) with his service dog, we have had mostly positive experiences. This past weekend I flew to and from NYC, while this American hero was being denied service, flight attendants on United moved me mid-flight because they thought Jason (our service dog) was too cramped. They told me to let him lay his head in the aisle to give him more room and they stopped the service cart before and after our row, so he only had to move his head for them to get by. Most agents are super helpful, some airlines they can’t move you around without charging the fee for the bulkhead, when that happened the flight attendants moved me on board; most legs, I got an upgraded boarding pass at the gate, at 2 stops, the gate agent came and found me when they saw Jason walking into gate area and said we upgraded your seat, have a great flight. Almost all flights, they came to get me to tell me they were going to start boarding, I should come to make sure we could board and get set before anyone else was on the plane.

    I did have one issue at TSA where my hands tested positive for something, it was stressful, they invade any personal space you have. I get it, my hands test positive for a suspicious chemical, I want them to make sure the plane me and my family are on is safe, but I also see how if you’re on the Spectrum or have PTSD, etc that this could be very frightening and stressful. It’s hard for me to see how to fix this part, thankfully there are smarter people than me out there. Other than that 1 experience, usually I walk through metal detector, dog follows, 10 TSA agents come up to say how crazy that the dog is that well trained and how pretty the dog is and can they help with the kids or bags while they swipe my hands. So once again, almost always it’s a positive experience.

  2. Airlines are not the only ones that need to do a better job knowing and following the law, it goes both ways, service dog handlers must do a better job knowing and following the laws as well. As a service dog handler it is my job to know my rights and responsibilities under the applicable laws and to know which law applies. Too many service dog handlers think that the ADA is the end all be all law for service dogs, it is not, there are several and it is important to know which one applies. For air travel the law that applies is the Air Carrier’s Access Act of 1986, regulated by the U.S. Dept of Transportation. In 2008 the DoT released their latest guidelines for the ACAA and it allows airlines to require documentation from a licensed mental health professional for Psychiatric Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals.

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