Oakland Press, Michigan.
Friday, February 24, 2006.
A proposed change in the Air Carrier Access Act might force disabled people to buy airline tickets for their guide and service animals when traveling by air in the United States and overseas.
"The current policy is that you go on the plane with your dog and the animal sits at the owner's feet," said Pat Paterno, manager of media relations at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills. "The Department of Transportation wants to permit airlines to charge for an extra seat or put the dogs in the cargo hold or have the disabled person and service animal wait for a less crowded flight."
Leader Dogs, founded in 1939, has had about 13,000 graduates. It pays for about 300 visually impaired and blind students each year to visit the facility and be trained to use guide dogs, which cost about $38,000 each. Lions Clubs and private donors often cover the cost of providing a guide dog for a blind person.
"This is going to negatively affect thousands of people," said Paterno.
Joan Froling of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners estimated there are about 25,000 Americans working with assistance dogs.
The proposed changes in the Access Act were first made Nov. 4, 2004, when the DOT published a Notice of Proposed Rule Making in the Federal Register concerning air travel by passengers with disabilities. Already, rest rooms in airplanes are too small to be accessible to a wheelchair user, so doctors often tell disabled travelers to dehydrate themselves before flying.
"The stated goal was to clarify existing rules and make air travel more accessible for disabled Americans," IAADP said in a statement. "However, a segment of that document would have the opposite effect for a portion of the disabled American community."
Rod Haneline, chief operating officer of Leader Dogs, noted, "The airlines talked about this before, and now apparently the DOT has issued proposed rules to authorize airlines to charge a disabled passenger for an extra ticket if the disabled person's service dog doesn't fit into the small amount of floor space directly in front of where the disabled person is sitting on an airplane."
The alternative being proposed, Haneline said, is the team would be separated with the service dog going into the cargo hold or both waiting for a later flight where there might be room for the service animal and the disabled person to sit in the cabin.
"This is not fair," he continued. "The dog is your choice of a mobility tool. You're being discriminated against, in essence, because your choice of a mobility tool doesn't fit perfectly into their seat."
Friends and members of the IAADP have flooded the DOT Public Comment site with more than 1,150 responses critical of the proposed rule changes.
"The issue is crucial to our freedom to travel with a guide, hearing or service animal," Froling said. "We expect the final rules to take effect this summer."
She said DOT first said it was a safety issue and now the airlines say it's a financial burden because they can't charge for a second seat.
If this rule goes into effect, Froling said, "it will make travel unaffordable for many disabled Americans. It deprives us of the access rights we've had for over 30 years and there has never been a complaint from a passenger to DOT about assistance animals."
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