What to Know About Flying with a Service Animal

by Daine Taylor
What to Know About Flying with a Service Animal

If your canine companion is a registered service dog, they are legally allowed to accompany you onto the cabin of an airplane during flights. Photo: Shutterstock.com. 

For those who require the assistance of a service dog, traveling by air can present some unexpected challenges. Which airlines will not allow service animals onboard? Do you have to get special permission? Will it cost extra? Do you have to sit in a specific section?

First of all, if your canine companion is a registered service dog, they are legally allowed to accompany you onto the cabin of an airplane during flights. These rights are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But, while they are required to accommodate you, each airline may have slightly different rules when it comes to flying with a service dog.

Some airlines will require documentation at the time of boarding. Travelers are strongly encouraged to check with the airline prior to booking tickets, and to bring additional documentation, just in case.

While not all airlines have the same rules, there are certain rules that apply across the board. For example, service animals that are traveling free in the cabin must be small enough to sit in their handler’s lap or on the floor below the seat in front of them. On all airlines, animals cannot obstruct the aisle; and for most airlines, animals cannot sit in an emergency exit row.

Travelers are encouraged to check with the airline in person or over the phone prior to booking passage to make sure their policies are clear. This is especially true when booking international travel, as other nations do not always abide by the same laws when it comes to service animals.

Here’s a brief overview of the policies for service dogs for the major American airlines.

Delta Airlines
Service animals can travel free of charge on Delta. The airline does not usually require travelers with a service animal to provide documentation. However, when flying with your service dog, the animal is expected to behave properly and follow the commands of its owner. Delta specifies that if they feel a service animal is having trouble following directions, they may ask additional questions or request documentation.

All service animals must sit at the floor space in front of the passenger’s seat. No animals are allowed on seats, or in the aisle of the cabin, as this is a violation of FAA regulations.

Delta does not allow certain species of animal to accompany handlers on a plane, regardless of their legal status. Those are: Hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, non-household birds, any animal with tusks or hooves; and any animal, regardless of species, that is not clean or has a foul odor.

Click here to view Delta’s Service Animal Policy.

United Airlines
United Airlines requires that trained service animals sit in the floor space at the feet of the passenger they are accompanying. Travelers are allowed to use an approved kennel to transport their companion, as long as it meets the stowage requirements for animals. Exit row seating is also prohibited for anyone traveling with a service animal.

United does not require documentation at the time of arrival for the flight, but they do make it clear that additional documentation may be required for international destinations.

Click here to view United’s Service Animal Policy.

Southwest Airlines
Customers flying with their service dog on Southwest can take their service animal in the cabin of the plane with them. The animal is legally allowed to be kept outside of a kennel, provided it can fit on the floor at the traveler’s feet, or on their lap, without obstructing the pathway. Southwest does not allow a service animal to sit in a seat, even if an extra seat has been purchased.

It is important to note that if you do decide to place your service animal in a kennel, the carrier must be properly stowed for taxi takeoff and landing. Additionally, Southwest makes it very clear that no animals of any kind are allowed to travel to/from Jamaica because of that country’s specific regulations.

Click here to view Southwest’s Service Animal Policy.

American Airlines 
American Airlines also welcomes service animals on all flights, at no additional charge to the passenger. Under the airlines cabin rules, the animal must be able to fit on the lap, or under the seat of the passenger. All service animals are expected to be well groomed and well behaved at all times. If your service animal is too large to sit on your lap or at your feet, it can still travel free of charge. However, it will need to be checked and travel in a kennel. It is important to check the size of your animal beforehand, and coordinate with the airline prior to purchasing tickets.

American Airlines makes it clear that all service animals cannot be blocking any aisles of the cabin. Additionally, anyone traveling with a service animal is not allowed to sit in an exit row. The airline encourages passengers with service animals to contact them ahead of time to arrange seating so there are not any surprises on the day of travel.

Click here to view American Airline’s Service Animal Policy.

Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines allows a passenger to travel with a service animal, and encourages travelers to inform one of their customer service agents upon arrival at the airport so that accommodations can be made. There is no additional charge for the service animal, and if you are taking a kennel with you, you may ship it as checked luggage for no fee as well.

As with other airlines, the animal must be able to fit at your feet, or in your lap without obstructing the aisles or other passengers’ space. Travelers with a service animal are not allowed to sit in an emergency exit row, and Alaska Airlines recommends trying to get a window seat so your animal is safe from foot traffic in the aisle.

Alaska Airlines also encourages passengers with service animals to provide some kind of harness or other distinguishing paraphernalia, but if that is not available, credible verbal assurance will suffice as long as the animal is well behaved.

If your animal cannot fit in the space allotted in the cabin, Alaska will find another flight for you or check your animal to travel in the cargo area free of charge.

Click here to view Alaska Airline’s Service Animal Policy.

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