Written by 11:58 pm Travel Views: [tptn_views]

Many Air Travelers With Disabilities Encounter Hurdles to Confirm Service Dogs

Joanna Lubkin, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has chronic pain and fatigue and relies on her service dog, a 4-year-old black Labrador named Sully, to select up items she drops, press elevator buttons and brace her when her body weakens. She never travels without him.

In June, when she and Sully arrived on the Pittsburgh International Airport to fly home to Boston after a conference, the agent on the JetBlue Airlines gate told her that there have been no forms on file certifying Sully as a service dog, and refused to let her board.

Since 2021, the Department of Transportation has required travelers with disabilities to fill out a typical form before boarding an aircraft with their trained service animal, attesting to the dog’s health, behavior and training. Before her flight to Pittsburgh on Delta Air Lines, Ms. Lubkin, 37, had accomplished the D.O.T. form for each Delta and JetBlue and uploaded it to their web sites. With Delta, she experienced no issues.

But every week later she found herself stranded in Pittsburgh, confused and frustrated. She didn’t know she was only certainly one of many travelers with disabilities encountering hurdles with the verification process, and finding themselves stuck on the airport even after that they had appropriately verified their service dogs for air travel.

JetBlue is certainly one of 4 airlines that uses a third-party — a small, Chicago-based company called Open Doors Organization — to review the brand new D.O.T. forms and issue approvals or denials on their behalf. And when Ms. Lubkin arrived at her gate for her return flight home, she was told Open Doors had not verified her form, and she or he wouldn’t be allowed to fly.

Angry and drained, Ms. Lubkin called a friend, who offered to drive her 570 miles back to Boston.

“Flying is physically painful for me and for numerous people,” she said. “Making it that much harder for us to travel is just unjust, and it doesn’t feel right to me.”

A JetBlue spokesman acknowledged her concerns.

“We understand that we want to make sure higher consistency in verifying paperwork during travel on all flights of a customer’s itinerary,” said Derek Dombrowski, the airline’s senior manager for corporate communications.

Before the coronavirus, air travelers seeking to bring an animal into the cabin had to stick to airlines’ individual rules for flying with pets, which sometimes required the acquisition of a special ticket. Fully trained service animals were exempt from any charges.

Airlines say the 2021 regulations were needed after a pandemic-related uptick of pets on airplanes, lots of them untrained and presenting a risk to travelers and bonafide service animals alike. There were also plenty of incidents where passengers attempted to pass off pets or emotional-support animals as trained service animals. At the top of 2021, most major airlines had declared they might now not accept emotional-support animals on board, and the Transportation Department put forth recent rules for service animals.

Among the changes: Airlines can require users of service animals, that are defined as dogs trained to perform a task directly related to an owner’s disability, to submit a D.O.T. form attesting to the animal’s health, behavior and training.

JetBlue, Allegiant Airlines, Sun Country Airlines and Alaska Airlines have partnered with Open Doors to process the forms. Travelers upload their forms to the airlines’ web sites, and the airlines then pass them on to Open Doors, which verifies the legitimacy of the service dog by examining the shape and sometimes calling the trainer, whose contacts are required on the shape, with additional questions.

Other airlines, including American Airlines and United Airlines, review and approve the forms themselves.

Some dog trainers and disability advocates say the brand new rules could also be illegal.

After Ms. Lubkin filled out her D.O.T. form and uploaded it to JetBlue’s website, greater than every week before departure, she received an email from NEADS, the service dog organization that trained Sully, letting her know that they had been contacted by Open Doors regarding her form and she or he was “all set.”

But in Pittsburgh, the gate agent couldn’t find any communication from Open Doors in her file.

“The incontrovertible fact that a company is making it so difficult for anyone to get accommodations for his or her disability — I consider that discrimination,” Ms. Lubkin said.

Travelers on other airlines have also faced issues. In June, Ashley O’Connor, a stay-at-home mother of three, was wanting to fly home to Columbus, Ohio, from Myrtle Beach, S.C., along with her son, Owen, and his recent service dog.

Owen, 4, has CHARGE syndrome — an acronym for a genetic illness affecting the center and airways — and Téa, a German shepherd, was trained to alert people round her when Owen is susceptible to respiratory distress.

Three days before their return flight on Allegiant, Ms. O’Connor, 30, filled out the D.O.T. form on the Allegiant’s website, but was told her application was denied because she didn’t list the particular tasks for which the dog is trained. She filled it out again, resubmitted after which received a confirmation. An email from Open Doors got here next, saying she could “request travel” from Allegiant. She did.

At the airport nevertheless, Ms. O’Connor was told there have been no forms on file. She tried to submit them yet again along with her phone, at one point pausing on the check-in counter to suction Owen’s tracheostomy tube. But she received a series of error messages, and was eventually told by the Allegiant gate agent that her application was denied.

She needed to enlist the assistance of Owen’s great-grandparents, each of their late 70s, to drive Téa nearly 10 hours to Columbus. She flew home alone with Owen.

“My obviously disabled child was sitting in a stroller next to me,” she said of the incident on the check-in counter. “There was no compassion.”

Allegiant said that Ms. O’Connor’s application was held up on account of incomplete information, and that she didn’t inform the airline she was traveling with a service animal until she arrived on the airport. She contests this.

“Open Doors Organization is a trusted nonprofit disability advocacy organization,” a spokesperson with the carrier said. “This strategic partnership has equipped Allegiant with higher tools to serve the incapacity community, allowing us to streamline the service animal approval process while ensuring the security of all passengers and crew members.”

Open Doors has admitted that communication with the airlines at times has gone awry. But the organization’s founder, Eric Lipp, said the problem mostly stemmed from airline employees who lacked proper training.

“We have had a few hiccups,” Mr. Lipp said. But when paperwork issues arise, he added, airline employees should allow customers with a transparent disability to board, or reach out on to Open Doors for guidance in that moment.

“JetBlue and Allegiant take up 90 percent of our time,” he said, adding that airlines should call the organization for input before issuing a denial. “Sometimes the individuals who work for the airlines just do stuff. And we don’t want the people on the airport to be those making the choices.”

The Air Carrier Access Act, passed in 1986, requires airlines to permit travelers with disabilities to board a flight with their service animals. And it limits the questions airlines can ask a couple of traveler’s disability as well.

“There are certain reasons an airline can deny a service animal, comparable to if it’s not a dog or in the event that they see behavioral issues,” said Cait Malhiot, an attorney with Marko Law, a law firm in Detroit. But an airline can’t require passengers to point out any specific training for a dog, or that a dog be trained only by an accredited source.

Ashley Townsend, a 32-year-old social employee, is blind and relies on Lolly, a 3-year-old black lab. In June, Ms. Townsend was invited to fly from her home in Denver to a fund-raiser in New York City for a guide-dog conference. The organization booked her ticket on JetBlue, and Ms. Townsend called the carrier two days before her flight to make sure she wouldn’t face issues boarding with Lolly. She was assured that she was all set to fly.

But the subsequent day, Ms. Townsend used her screen reader to take a look at JetBlue’s website. Only then did she see that her D.O.T. form, which she was used to submitting, would should be reviewed by Open Doors before flying. She had flown just two months earlier with Lolly on a Southwest Airlines flight and never encountered an Open Doors review. When she received an automatic message that it might take 48 hours to receive a response, she panicked — her flight was in lower than a day. She again called JetBlue, and after hours on hold, was informed that she had not accomplished the paperwork properly and wouldn’t be allowed to fly.

She canceled her ticket and purchased a recent flight on United, which doesn’t use Open Doors. She and Lolly flew without issue.

JetBlue said the Open Doors partnership had been put into place due to multiple incidents of dogs being passed off as service animals on flights, but then wreaking havoc within the air, including biting crew members and relieving themselves on the plane.

“We have developed a process to aim to tell apart properly trained service dogs traveling with a professional individual with a disability from other dogs,” said Mr. Dombrowski, the airline’s spokesman.

Ms. Townsend said she understood the foundations have been tightened, but she feels that the incapacity community is bearing the brunt of the responsibility for a difficulty they didn’t cause.

“I’m faced with this burden of proving that my service animal is legitimate, as an alternative of individuals being held accountable for intentionally blurring that line,” she said.

In May, Erin Brennan Wallner, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based communications associate, and her family were left stranded in Boston with their son’s service dog. Mason, 14, has autism and relies on Zoe, a 65-pound goldendoodle in moments of stress.

The family booked a vacation to Boston and was unaware of the change within the D.O.T. rules. So were the agents and crew on their outbound JetBlue flight — they flew with Zoe from Jacksonville to Boston with no issues. But after they arrived on the airport to return home, they were told they might not board without an approved D.O.T. form.

Frantic, Ms. Wallner attempted to fill out the shape within the airport. The family watched their flight depart without them, and two hours later, while still hoping to be rebooked that day, Ms. Wallner received an email from Open Doors stating that Zoe, who was trained by an organization called Off Leash K9 Training, didn’t qualify as a service animal.

Open Doors, when contacted in regards to the situation, said that Zoe had been rejected because Ms. Wallner had used vague language to explain the dog’s training, fairly than offering specifics on the tasks the dog performs. Mr. Lipp, Open Doors’ founder, said his company processes about 120 forms a day and in cases like Ms. Wallner’s, he at all times attempts to contact the trainer for more information.

But Zoe’s trainer, Matt Gregory, said he never received a call from Open Doors. The family ended up renting a automotive and driving 18 hours back to Jacksonville.

Ms. Wallner said that the very fact her family was allowed to fly to Boston in the primary place proved the system just isn’t working.

“I understand that plenty of individuals make the most of the situation,” she said. “But don’t you’ve a responsibility to at the least get us home?”

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