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Airlines Tried to Stop Fake Service Animals. It Kept Blind People off Flights.

August 30, 2023
Source: Washington Post

New Department of Transportation rules have made flying more difficult, and at times, inaccessible to blind passengers

Elizabeth Schoen’s guide dog, Eva, is trained to help her navigate crowded, chaotic environments such as airports. The black Labrador knows how to find elevators, follow crowds to the baggage claim area and help Schoen, who is blind, avoid obstacles.

But when Schoen, 21, of Arlington, Va., tried to fly to Boston to tour graduate schools last March, airline staffers told her she could not take Eva on the plane.

She is one of many blind people who say they have encountered more difficulty taking service animals onto flights since new rules from the Department of Transportation took effect in January 2021. The regulations were an effort to crack down on a rise in passengers passing off untrained pets as service or emotional support animals. Some travelers tried to take peacockspigsducks and even miniature horses onboard aircraft. Some animals defecated on the planes or attacked crew members, passengers and legitimate service dogs.

The new rules state that emotional support animals are not considered service animals and narrow the definition exclusively to properly trained dogs. Airlines can require passengers to complete forms about their service dog’s training at least 48 hours before their flight. Airlines also must make a reasonable effort to allow all passengers with service dogs to fly, even if they do not submit their forms in time.

But disability advocates say airlines seem to be interpreting the regulations differently, enforcing varying rules for submitting documents or rejecting forms from other airlines’ websites.

Some passengers say their dogs have been rejected for simple paperwork mistakes. The required forms also have been difficult to fill out, blind travelers say, because they are often not compatible with the screen reader technology [blind] people use to convert text to speech.

In interviews, blind people told The Washington Post that the regulations are so difficult to navigate that they are now hesitant to fly or are anxious about the experience. Various organizations for the blind are calling for the forms to be changed or eliminated.

Department of Transportation data shows that the number of service-animal-related complaints from people with disabilities have more than doubled since the new regulations took effect. In 2018, the agency received 116 complaints. In 2022, the number was 451.

The agency acknowledged that people with disabilities are experiencing problems flying with their service animals and said in an email that it is taking their concerns seriously and “has begun looking further into those issues.”

“It’s a gigantic mess,” said Albert Elia, a board member at the National Association of Guide Dog Users and a staff attorney at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, a nonprofit legal organization focused on disability justice.

Denied at the airport

Schoen originally tried to submit her form online four days before her JetBlue flight, but it was rejected by the airline. JetBlue’s customer service advised her to bring the paperwork to the airport on the day of her flight.

When she arrived, airline staffers told her she had not submitted the form on time. Schoen tried to explain that JetBlue needed to make reasonable efforts to get her and Eva on the flight but was told that the airline had the right to turn her dog away.

“If you’re denying my dog, you’re denying me,” she said.

Schoen missed her flight and spent about $400 to fly the next day with a different airline. She was later reimbursed for her original flight and learned that the form had been rejected because she had used an incorrect flight confirmation code.

The experience is one of many in which Schoen said she has had trouble submitting her form and been treated with suspicion by airline staffers.

“It’s made me more scared. Every time I go to the airport, it’s like, ‘Are they going to stop me?’” Schoen said. “Even if I know I’m approved, I still feel this pressure, like I’m under a microscope.”

The airline did not respond to questions about Schoen’s experience, but JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski wrote in an email that timely submission of the service dog form is necessary to determine whether a dog is qualified to travel. He wrote that roughly 80 percent of applications are approved but that “customers who do not submit in advance may not be able to travel.”

Inaccessible forms

Filling out the forms requires blind users to have the most up-to-date screen-reader technology, which can cost over $1,000, said Elia, the attorney at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center. In some cases, forms are difficult to navigate because text boxes are not labeled properly or cannot be clicked into. It took over 30 minutes for Elia to fill out the form, and on some devices and browsers, he was not able to fill out the form at all.

The forms have proved so cumbersome that travelers including Sherry Gomes, 65, of Patterson, Calif., now choose not to fly. Gomes used to teach computer skills to other blind people and assist people encountering screen-reader problems but grew frustrated trying to fill out the form herself.

“It was a fairly simple form. But if I, who have a lot of experience using this product, had trouble with it, then newer computer people and people with less experience are going to have a lot more trouble with it,” she said.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson said in an email that the department consulted disability rights organizations on the forms and also worked with accessibility testers. The department said it has begun investigating potential problems and is open to feedback to make improvements.

Not enough to stop fake service animals

For all the trouble the forms cause, they do not stop people from lying or trying to pass off untrained pets as service animals, said Eric Lipp, the executive director of Open Doors Organization, which reviews service-dog forms for JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air and Sun Country Airlines.

The forms ask owners to attest that their dog has been properly trained to assist them with their disability and to behave in public settings. Owners must also provide veterinarian contact information and date of last vaccination, but are not required to present other documentation. It can be hard to tell a legitimate service dog from a fake one, Lipp said, and some service animals are trained by individuals or owners rather than by organizations.

Michael Stein, the executive director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, called the regulations “poorly designed” because they introduce additional barriers for people with disabilities and ultimately leave decisions up to the discretion of workers. He said there is no clear rationale behind the forms, as they do not help airline staffers to distinguish fake service dogs from legitimate ones.

“This seems to be bending over backward to create some kind of formal requirement,” he said. “I don’t see the logic or the benefit.”

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses are allowed to ask people two questions if their service dogs are required because of a disability and to explain what tasks the dogs are trained to perform.

But it is still possible to fake having a service dog in person, particularly when it comes to dogs assisting people with psychiatric disorders or other invisible disabilities, Elia said. “How am I supposed to know if a dog is trained to perceive seizures? How are you going to prove it? Have a seizure on demand?”

And asking people to prove that they have disabilities may force them to disclose sensitive health information, Elia added.

Some airlines have contacted service-dog training programs to verify information on the required forms. But in early August, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center warned some airlines and dog-training programs that this could be considered a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects the privacy of health information.

Airlines for America, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, did not respond to questions about these practices. Hannah Walden, a spokeswoman for the association, wrote in an email that its members comply with the Department of Transportation’s rules.

A matter of safety

The Department of Transportation said the rules were created to ensure the safety and health of passengers and aircrews. But the agency said it does not have data on whether these rules have reduced incidents involving untrained animals on flights.

JetBlue has seen a “significant reduction in disruptions from untrained dogs,” but some problems continue, Dombrowski wrote in an email. JetBlue says that on average it experiences an incident involving service dogs, such as a dog biting customers or crew members, every three weeks.

Screening out fake service animals also can help protect the safety of genuine ones, said Donald Overton Jr., executive director of the Blinded Veterans Association.

His guide dog, a German Shepherd named Pierce, was trained for years at a cost of thousands of dollars. After Pierce was attacked multiple times by untrained pets on planes and in airports, the dog eventually became too reactive and anxious to continue working as a service animal.

“In the blink of an eye, somebody who has just casually and carelessly decided that their pet should be out there can take all of that and destroy it,” he said.

Pushing for change

Organizations including the American Council of the Blind, Guide Dog Users Inc., the National Federation of the Blind and the National Association of Guide Dog Users have been meeting with Department of Transportation staffers and pushing for the forms to be eliminated or changed.

“We don’t think airlines, with regard to guide dogs, should require a separate process than what is required for everyone else,” said John G. Paré Jr., the executive director for advocacy and policy at the National Federation of the Blind.

But changing the rules could take time, because proposed regulations go through a public comment period before decisions are made.

In the meantime, some of these organizations are supporting a provision  in the Senate Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act that would establish a pilot program for people to register their service dogs. This would allow blind people to fly repeatedly with guide dogs on the basis of a one-time approval process, instead of needing to submit a form every time they fly.

The provision is one of many bipartisan efforts seeking to improve air travel for disabled passengers as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding and programs before [September] 30.

[Senator] Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is a double leg amputee as a result of combat injuries sustained as a U.S. military pilot and who drafted the provision, said the program would create a more streamlined process for vetting service animals.

“Far too often, many continue to be flat-out denied or charged exorbitant extra fees to sit in accessible seats or sit with a service companion during commercial flights,” she said.

Jessica Beecham, 38, of Colorado Springs, is blind and said she regularly faces questions from airline workers about her guide dog and has been delayed at airports for up to four hours over issues with her form.

“It feels like a guessing game of whether or not you’re going to get hassled,” Beecham said. “I would like to just fly in peace.”

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