Revisiting Planes, Pets and Service Dogs: Steps to Take

In September, another media frenzy around air travel occurred when a woman with a severe dog allergy was allegedly forcibly removed from a Southwest flight, after declaring on the flight she had a severe dog allergy and required “an allergy shot”, per the video.1 You can read the article I read and watch the video for yourself here.

As someone who has flown on over a dozen flights accompanying friends with Guide Dogs, but also someone with asthma (albeit no animal allergies or severe allergies), I obviously have bias on both sides of the aisle here, and am acknowledging that first, as I am unsure that bias towards both parties actually makes me neutral.
While this is causing a stir, it seemed a good time to go over what your responsibilities are flying as a passenger with a disability (be that an allergy, or one requiring a service dog, or something totally different).

Self Declare Your Disability to the Airline

As soon as you book your flight, you NEED to self-declare your disability (including medical conditions that may impact your ability to travel or require accommodations, like severe allergies) to the airline by calling their Medical Assistance Desk, preferably as soon as you book, in order to ensure you have a comfortable and safe flight. In some cases, you will require medical documentation, so be mindful of that when you call, most airlines keep a letter on file for a year. Explain your situation, such as, that you are traveling with a severe allergy to a specific substance, or your asthma is triggered severely by specific triggers, or you have a food allergy. Or, if you are traveling with a service dog (this sometimes will get you an empty seat beside you so you and the dog have more room).

Calling ahead means there is less risk of a misunderstanding on travel day. You should be emphatic about your needs, and explore what the airline’s policy is—for instance, if someone with a service dog books onto your flight, and calls the medical desk, what will their policy be to keep you both accommodated while flying? In my opinion of the scenario with Southwest, above, the person who had not formally requested accommodation for having a disability, should have been put on the next flight by the airline, and informed of their need to self-identify their need for accommodation. If both parties had not formally notified the airline of their need for accommodation, the airline cannot be held responsible for either party’s needs not being met. End of story. We don’t know the details here on who may have called and who may not have.

Know the airline’s policy

Service dogs are not pets, and they are permitted to fly on any flight, any airline, with a trained handler. However, it’s important to know the airline’s policy on allowing pets to fly in the cabin. You can call ahead with your concerns, or for peace of mind, choose to book on a pet-free airline. Depending on the airline’s policies, pets may not have to be pre-registered to fly, the only stipulation may be that they need to be in an air transport approved, soft-sided carrier, for example.
Know as well how the airline will accommodate you if you are unable to fly with a severe allergy due to a pet or service animal in the cabin, such as rebooking you to on next available flight. As well, you may discuss with your doctor steps you can take to stay healthy flying with animals nearby—for example, can you wipe down surfaces before you fly, pre-medicate with your inhaler and an antihistamine, and wear a mask during the flight, and be safe with an animal in the cabin? Only you and your doctor can decide this.

Contacting the airline

Give the airline as great notice as possible for accommodating you—either with an allergy or flying with a service animal. Have medical documentation ready to send per what their website states. I recently contacted an airline for a mobility related seat assignment, and they informed me I required a medical note, and I could submit one by e-mail. I was able to contact my doctor and get him to e-mail me a note, which I then forwarded to the airline. Within a shocking 17 minutes, my revised flight booking with seats assigned was in my inbox, so it may not be as long and arduous of a process as you might anticipate!
In all cases, contacting the medical assistance department at your airline of choice can provide useful information as well as help you make any accommodations.

Have you flown with severe allergies to either pets or food? Did you contact the airline ahead of time? What steps do you take to stay safe while flying? 

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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