By Alyssa Salter
Bened Life Neurodiversity & Disability Specialist*
Airplanes are a marvel of modern travel. A bus of people loads up and jets off into the sky to travel hundreds of miles to a new destination. It is also one of the only places I will choose to drink ginger ale. My delicious crispy air drink!
That said, there are many barriers to flying. For one, you always have to empty your water bottle or the other random liquid you forgot to take out of your carry on, like an expensive perfume.
But the things I worry about are a little different. I’m a disabled Autistic person with a service dog, and my priorities are often furrier than others.
My service dog is a psychiatric and medical task-trained service dog. She is a black Labrador retriever mix and an absolute angel. Her favorite ride at Disneyland is Haunted Mansion and she really loves her squeaky tennis ball.
Since getting my service dog, I haven’t traveled by any means other than a car. A car is a relatively easy method of transport for my service dog and me, and is easier to access.
But flying? That’s a whole other ballgame.
Here is how I prepared for my first flight with my service dog and a summary of my experience.
Preparing to Fly with a Service Dog
Since this was our first time flying together as a team, we would have to prepare for the journey and any complications that could arise. I believe in extensive planning and preparing, which helps soothe some anxiety.
The rules for flying with a service animal are slightly different for each airline. Be sure to speak with a representative to clarify each of the necessities the airline has for flying with a service dog. According to the Department of Transportation, there are two forms that airlines may require. Depending on the airline, they may use one, or both, or neither. You can read more about that here.
I informed customer service of my disabilities ahead of time, that I would have an aide with me, and that we would like early boarding. Upon arrival at the airport, we were escorted through a special line for security so that there were no long lines. You can make all of these requests with a service dog.
We also asked if there were upgrades to bulkhead seating for more leg room, since my service dog goes at my feet, and she is a large dog.
What to Expect at the Airport with Your Service Dog
Security was relatively easy, just with more things than just luggage and taking off your shoes. My service dog has been through security lines before, which was an advantage. My wife helped me load up our bins, which helped a lot with my anxiety.
Security has you go through the detector, with your dog staying with someone in your party or in a down stay. Afterwards, they will have your service dog go through as well and scan extra if needed.
The biggest barrier we faced was someone who brought their golden retriever pet and lied about it being a service animal. This dog lunged at my service dog and barked incessantly. This is unacceptable behavior, and this is why lying about an animal's status as a pet or service animal is more serious than some people realize.
We got lucky on our flights and were able to have a few upgrades, but my service dog was also comfortable in the regular seating. Each handler knows their service animal best, so use your best judgment. My advice is: it can’t hurt to ask!
The most useful accommodation was early boarding. This allowed me and my service dog to get to our seats comfortably and without rushing. This helped me stay calm, which is always helpful.
How to Plan for Layovers with a Service Dog
Some service dogs need hearing protection like a snood to combat the noises of takeoff or landing. My service dog slept through both the ascent and descent without needing anything. I am lucky that she’s a sound sleeper.
My anxiety kept me from using the plane lavatory on our flights, since the lavatories are small, and I am also a fat person. Airlines make things as tight as possible on planes for maximum sales, which is not fat friendly.
We also planned to have layovers specifically for potty breaks and snacking. Part of our layover prep was to look at what airport and terminal we would be in. Knowing the area where we would deboard helped us research the location of the nearest service dog relief area. Our specific layover was in the Atlanta airport, which is massive. Their service dog relief areas were easy to locate and clearly labeled. They were also very clean!
Once everyone had their chance to use the potty, we were able to then make our way to our next gate.
TIP: When flying with a service dog, we recommend rationing out and timing out water/food intake. My service dog has no issue holding her urine for 12-15 hours (not that we would push her to hold it this long!). This means I have a good timeline for when she will need breaks (layovers are best) and how to set us up for success as a team.
We flew out a day early to make the layover accommodation and to also have rest. Rest is essential because travel is exhausting.
We waited for everyone to get off before exiting due to the extreme rush everyone seems to be in for deboarding. The most common phrase we heard as the plane was de-boarding was “Oh! There was a dog! I had no idea.” I’d counter with, “That’s kind of the point of a service dog.”
By taking space and time for myself in the planning process, I set myself up for a lot of success down the road in the travel process. I’m grateful that I was willing to take that space for myself.
Traveling with my service dog was scary but surprisingly painless. I was grateful for the supports that were in place, as well as having people who could help me advocate for accommodations. I was able to successfully navigate a new experience with fairly decent accessibility.
Flying as a disabled person is not always easy, especially when you have other mobility aids such as a wheelchair. There is so much room for improvement when it comes to supporting disabled travelers.
Hopefully, this can help inform other service teams and prepare them for a flying experience.
My top five takeaways would be:
- Ask for accommodations.
- Plan time for things to go wrong.
- Bring a comfort/safe food snack to cheer yourself up.
- Research is essential!
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help -- you don’t have to do it alone. This can be an aide or the employees at the airport.
*Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bened Life.