By Brian Fischler
When I applied for the Flight for Sight travel grant, part of my goal was to review my experiences at different TSA checkpoints at airports around the country. I knew this would be stressful and probably give me a lot of acid reflux. However, I had no clue that the adventures would begin with the airlines and just booking my tickets.
In June 2021, the airlines implemented a new process that guide dog handlers need to go through before we can bring our guide dogs on an airplane. It was a nice surprise to come back to after not traveling during the pandemic. You must now complete this paperwork 48 hours prior to flying. Prior to 2021, I would book my flight, call the airline, let them know that I am blind and would be traveling with a service dog. The airline would make a note of it under my reservation, give me a bulkhead seat if it was available, and I was off and traveling. Simple and easy.
Now that the airlines have decided to crack down on people who claim their pet dog is a service dog, the people who use real service dogs are the ones paying the price.
For the first leg of my trip, I am going to seven cities and will be flying on five different airlines. Over the past week, I have spent hours and hours researching each airline’s service dog policy, filling out paperwork, refilling out paperwork, and dealing with accessibility issue after accessibility issue on each airline’s website. I am a 40ish year old man! Ok, I am 50. (I hate admitting that.) And I am a blind tech god! (No modesty needed.) And even being a grown man and a blind tech god, I have had to ask my mommy to help me fill out some of the required paperwork because of accessibility barriers.
I use a 2020 Intel iMac running macOS Ventura and the latest version of VoiceOver. I did not test any of these airlines websites on a PC with NVDA or Jaws. I attempted all of my testing in Safari and Chrome on the Mac. So, let’s begin with my experience with JetBlue.
I fly JetBlue a lot, in fact, I just flew on JetBlue with my guide dog Wesley two weeks ago. In order to fly on JetBlue with your service dog you must first apply for a service dog ID provided by the Department of Transportation. Your service dog ID is valid until the end of your service dog’s rabies shot expires. After that you will need to apply for another service dog ID. Your service dog ID is a ten digit number but it also has a dash in it followed by your guide dog’s name. To a sighted person, it might be clear that the dog’s name is part of the ID number but with a screen reader, I just hear “Wesley” and think, “Yes, this is Wesley’s number.” Of course when I fail to enter the number plus Wesley’s name my form won’t submit but I get no message as to why.
On top of that inaccessibility, there’s the third party site you need to use to get permission to take your service dog on a JetBlue flight. This site services JetBlue, Alaska Air, and Allegiance. A screen reader user needs to make a selection of their airline from a drop down button that is so poorly coded it is not accessible on the Mac in Safari or Chrome. You can enter your info in the rest of the form but as soon as you go to submit it you get rejected because you cannot make an airline selection. Ok, time to call Mommy.
She was more than happy to help. Upon completion you get an email that you have successfully submitted your form and you will get a response in 24 hours. I wake up the next day, checked my email, and how odd, even though I had just flown on JetBlue two weeks ago, my request to travel with a service dog was rejected! Absolutely no explanation in the email as to why. The only directions were to contact JetBlue directly, do not contact Open Doors, the company you request approval through. So it was back to the phones and calling JetBlue again as I had called them before I started this whole process to see if the Bulkhead was available. It was. I got a phenomenal woman at JetBlue in special services. You could tell this employee was well versed with the accessibility issues people are having with JetBlue’s website and the service dog approval process. She was able to look up my travel history with Wesley on JetBlue, and said, you have flown with him five times on JetBlue, I don’t know why you were refused approval with your guide dog. She even commented, “That’s strange. You just flew two weeks ago with him.” Fortunately, this employee was kind enough to fill out the required paperwork for me, which I do not think all employees would do, and 24 hours later my guide dog was approved for travel on my JetBlue flight. Ok, one airline down, four more to go.
Next up was Delta, an airline that I have also flown on previously with my guide dog. In fact, I had flown on Delta back in February, and do not even recall having any issues, but this time things were a lot different. Unlike JetBlue, Delta handles the process of getting your service dog approved internally. I was on hold for about 35 minutes with Delta, and after telling them I was traveling with a service dog, they put me on hold for another 25 minutes to speak with a supervisor. Once the supervisor got on the phone, he told me what I needed to do to come on board a Delta flight with my service dog. Are you ready? You might want to go get a beer first…
At least 48 hours in advance of flying, I need to go to Delta.com, find the search box, click on service animal, make a request to the Department of Transportation for a service dog ID. Ok, I already have one from JetBlue, is that number also good on Delta? Back on hold as the supervisor is not sure. Ten minutes later he is back with the answer: No, that number is not also good on Delta. I need to apply for another Service Dog ID, and once I get it, come back to Delta.com, download the form, fill it out (I assume it probably won’t be accessible), save the file to my computer, go to Delta.com again, find my trip, open my reservation, and find the right place to upload my special service request low vision/blind accessibility form. You got all of that? By the way, I attempted to follow all these steps and they were incorrect, as some of the steps were labeled differently then what I was told. Basically nobody on the planet knows what exactly you have to do. As my head was getting ready to explode, I was on the phone again to Mommy to help me with this process. As much as I hate asking for sighted assistance, sometimes, it’s just easier and so much less stressful.
Two days later, I got an email from Delta that my request to travel with a service dog was not approved as there was missing information on the form such as my name, service dog vaccination date, trainer, etc. Fortunately, my mom had saved what we filled out to her desktop, and how odd, when she checked the form, all the information that Delta claimed was missing was properly filled out in the form, so we resubmitted it, and two days later I was approved to travel on my Delta flight with my service dog.
Next up was Southwest. I have never flown on Southwest. I did a Google search for traveling with a guide dog on Southwest, and shockingly, it appears you just need to have a Department of Transportation form filled out and printed. By the way, I would guess that 70% of blind people do not own printers, because why would we? Blind people print so infrequently that by the time you actually have to print something, the ink cartridge has dried out. Additionally, I am not aware of a single printer on the market that speaks to you. Just an FYI, for those blind peeps, if you do want to get a printer, get a laser printer as the ink will not dry out on you. And by the way part two, the document needs to have the blind person’s signature on it which is just stupid. We can’t see it! What genius came up with the process of requiring printed out paperwork for the blind?!
I figured with all the fun I have been having with getting my service dog on planes, that it might be best to call Southwest just to make sure there wasn’t something I was missing. I was told that I just needed to show up and my seat would be assigned at the gate. Ugh, now I know why I hear such terrible things about Southwest. So we shall see what happens with Southwest when I get to the gate.
Three down, two to go. Please note: this entire process took me over a week to complete. Next up was United Airlines. I have not flown United in decades. I Googled traveling with a service dog on United and, just like Southwest, I just need to have the Department of Transportation paperwork on my body at all times. Hmm, are they going to keep asking me for the form throughout the flight? I figured it was better safe than sorry, so I called United to confirm this. The person in special services asked me the weight of my guide dog. Fine. But then asked his height? Seriously? I have no clue what his height is. I mean does any blind person know this? So I asked Alexa for the average height of a Labrador retriever, which is 20 to 25 inches. I told them 30 as Wesley is a tall one. And then I was baffled by what the United agent asked me next: “Does he expand into the seat next to you?” I very calmly said, “How am I supposed to know? I am blind.” She came back with, “Well, I think you should probably purchase the seat next to you!” Yeah, because the average blind person is just rolling in all that extra dough so we can pay for two seats when flying. It’s why Wesley and I only travel by limo! I told her that I was not about to do that, so again, we shall see what in the world happens when we board my two United flights.
Finally there was American Airlines. Oh boy American, why oh why? I called the main number for American and their automated system asked what I was calling about. I said “traveling with a service dog” and I was transferred to Shipping and Animal Transportation. I tried it again and got the same thing. After waiting on hold for close to an hour, I got an employee who told me they could not give me a seat assignment until I filled out the necessary paperwork. She did tell me that she could have a supervisor call me back to tell me everything I will need to travel with my service dog on American Airlines. Fantastic, let’s do that. Day one: no call back. Day two: no call back. We are now over 48 hours with no call back. Why does a blind person traveling with a service dog have to submit all their paperwork to travel with their service dog at least 48 hours in advance but a supervisor at American Airlines does not have to call back within 48 hours? Day three: no call back. Day four: no call back. Finally, with less than a week until I take off, I do some research and find out that American Airlines, like most airlines, has a different phone number for special service requests than their main booking phone number. I called it and got a fantastic employee named Charlemagne. Charlemagne has worked in special services for years and is very familiar with the struggles of the blind traveler, the inaccessible American Airlines app, their terribly designed website and all the hassles a blind service dog user needs to endure to get on the plane with their guide dog. Charlamagne knows all about it. How refreshing. Charlemagne helps me with everything. She documents my service dog, she gets me in the bulkhead, and even gets my travel buddy Ed in the same row as me. Hey, Charlamagne, maybe you should be the supervisor at American Airlines!
Ah, five airlines down. All the necessary paperwork has been filled out, it has all been submitted, and approved. Now I will just have to print out the necessary paperwork (should be quite the stack). Of course, I can scan each document with an app, but outside of that, how the heck am I supposed to know which sheet is which? And I am sure that I won’t have any hassles at the airports about any of this. Yes, that is sarcasm, because sarcasm rocks.