“The dog cannot go on board” – challenges when flying with a guide dog

Lassie curled up on the floor in front of a seat on an airplane. She is wearing an orange vest that has a blue guide dog symbol on it. She is looking at the camera. Her guide dog lead with the words "please don't feed me" lies across her. You can see my shoe in the right hand lower corner

Part of the academic life is travelling. We travel to conferences to present our research to other researchers, to collect data, to engage with policymakers, businesses and nonprofit organizations to help spread insights from our research. Whenever possible, I take my guide dog Lassie with me. This is not always possible. Sometimes the trip is too far but short, not giving her the time to adjust, it might be too hot, or I might be going to a country where guide dogs aren’t really a thing.

Before leaving

Flying with your four-legged life-changer takes preparation.  You can’t simply show up at the airport and say “hi, my guide dog and I are travelling to Berlin today”. You need to book the dog onto your flight, and you need to do that early, as most airlines only allow one assistance dog per flight. The catch? You have to first book your ticket before you can book your dog and find out if there is space.

So how do you book a guide dog onto a flight? Well, that depends on the airline. For example, Lufthansa and Eurowings ask for an email. Then it takes at least six weeks – so no last-minute trips – for them to read the email and confirm the booking. With others such as British Airways, you have to call at least  48 to 72 hours prior to your trip. So you can be more last minute, unless someone else with an assistance dog is already booked onto the flight.

Dealing with call centers takes at least 15 minutes, but I have spent 45 minutes trying to sort everything out once. And no, this isn’t because of busy lines. Some of my funniest moments since I got Lassie happened when trying to book her onto a flight. The agents have to go through a set of questions. I have been asked why I want to take a blind dog, whether I bring my own guide dog  or want the airline to provide me one at the departure and arrival airport (BTW: I said yes, but nothing ever happened  ) or what a guided dog (not a typo) is.  This part of the process is annoying but doable.

At the airport

Checking in at the airport can be a different story. This is the bit I dread the most. With some airlines, I don’t get any written confirmation of Lassie’s booking (believe me, not for lack of trying) and there is always a chance that check-in staff can’t find Lassie in the system. Online check-in with a guide dog booking is impossible, you only get error messages.

I had mostly good and some great experience. It might take quite a while, but staff are mostly very friendly and helpful and apologize if it takes longer. But as always, there are the exceptions. 

For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus on two of those bad experiences. I don’t want to scare anyone off travelling with their guide dog. I rather want to show the additional challenges disabled and, in my case, visually impaired travelers have to cope with and how those can make us feel. This is quite personal to me and only portrays my own experience and feelings in those situations.

So let’s start. Once a year, I go to Germany to teach a three-day undergraduate course on social entrepreneurship with a close friend and colleague. It wasn’t the first time that I took Lassie, but the first time I decided to fly all the way Nuremberg which involves a stopover rather than flying to Frankfurt and then taking the train. As assistant staff at airports help get me from one plane to the next, I thought this would make it much less stressful. The outbound flight was smooth without any issues, but the way back was a different story altogether.

I arrived at Nuremberg airport just over two hours before the flight. As checking in can take so long, I’ve learned that even if I have no luggage to check in and it’s domestic or within the EU, I need to be there very early.  At first, everything was going well, they checked me in, printed my boarding pass and asked me if I needed help to get to the gate. I declined as the airport is small and I know it well.

However, when I just quickly asked for confirmation: “Did you block the seat next to me for my guide dog?”, things went downhill. The ground staff member asked me confusedly: “You are taking the dog?”. I was there on my own, so I don’t know what she thought I was going to do with Lassie. I stayed calm and said “yes, and she is booked” (even had written confirmation this time). She got quiet, I heard her typing and she said “oh yes, but the plane is full”. At that point, I was still not concerned as this had happened a lot so I just said “there is a blocked seat somewhere but sometimes it ends up not next to me so you probably just have to reseat someone and move the blocked seat next to mine”. But there was no blocked seat anywhere, no one on standby, there was simply no spare seat. While she was talking and telling me that Booking had made a mistake and while they had booked Lassie, they forgot to book a seat for her, I felt my stress levels going up. I felt my hands getting sweaty and my face feeling warmer. Yet, I thought, this can be resolved somehow. So I asked “So where should she go?” They suggested between my legs. As this is how we travel in a taxi, I wouldn’t have had a problem. Yet, I had flown in on the plane and it was one of those tiny ones where I struggled to get my legs in and there was no space under the seat in front of me to squash her in. While this went through my head, ground staff came to the same realization, as she said “but she won’t fit, will she?”. I suggested that they could find a passenger who likes dogs who might not mind if Lassie was half on their feet. They refused. For safety reasons, having Lassie half poke out into the aisle was also not an option.

I was really stressing out now but tried to find a solution. My years of experience in dealing with disability-related issues has been to try and stay in “problem-solving mode” and not panic. But it was getting harder and harder to keep the panicky feeling inside of me at bay, not least as time was ticking by. I was fighting back tears as I didn’t want to show them how anxious and vulnerable they made me feel. After all, I have a PhD and have travelled around the world on my own. But situations like this make me relive many negative experiences and put me back in the mindset of being so dependent on others and also really frustrated that my situation always needs to be special and I can’t simply fade into the crowd. I felt stranded. I would never allow them to take Lassie from my side, I’d rather walk back home. Scenarios of catching a different flight from another airport to taking the train all went through my head, none of them realistic. Why? Well I wouldn’t have been able to book Lassie onto a last-minute flight and the train would have taken so long that I would have had to take her back to a vet to get another worming treatment (requirement before entering the UK). Two worming treatments so close to each other aren’t good for their health.

The only thing I heard repeatedly was that the dog doesn’t fit. Once I managed to calm down enough to speak in a mostly normal voice, I asked for a manager. When he finally came, it was less than an hour till departure. I had been there for almost an hour. The manager confirmed that Lassie couldn’t go on the plane so I asked him with a croaking voice: “What shall I do then?”. I hated feeling so vulnerable. Writing this makes me relive some of that, even though it was 2 years ago. This feeling is awful. I consider myself very resilient, I’ve heard almost any insult you can imagine (and some you probably can’t), I have travelled across the world on my own without any help, but still – some moments just throw you back to that space of anxiety and vulnerability.

The manager said I could take a taxi to the destination airport and the airline would pay. He assured me that I would make it on time to catch my connecting flight. He was about to pull me along to the taxi stand when I pulled my arm away and asked how I was supposed to find the gate in Munich. It had been years since I had last been there and I had never been landside, always just in transit. And of course, the special assistant staff would expect me to come off the Nuremberg flight and not arrive somewhere in the check-in hall. He hadn’t considered that. He asked the driver for his number and promised to call him with instructions. In the car, I first called my husband, then my parents and cuddled Lassie a lot till I was fully calm and relaxed again.

At the airport, the driver was amazing and brought me to the right spot and waited there until someone “took me over”. I was picked up eventually and we went through security and to the gate with minutes till boarding. When we arrived at the gate, boarding had already started. This would cause a bit of difficulty as I usually pre-board (first on the plane) so that Lassie and I can settle without other passengers trying to push past. It does take a couple of minutes to coordinate our six legs, especially as she usually tries to lie down in the business class rows and I have to coax her to walk to economy with me – can’t blame her for that, really.

At the gate, I was stopped. Imagine the following: I had two special assistance staff with me in their high vis jackets. So we were probably drawing stares as usual anyway. Then the guy at boarding stopped boarding and talked rather loudly “your dog can’t board the plane”. My first reaction was stunned, it felt like someone had physically punched me. Luckily this time, my stress turned to frustration and anger, so I said that she could and that I was going on the plane. They blocked me and demanded her paperwork – which had already been checked many times in Nuremberg. I showed them her passport with the necessary rabies injection stamp and the tapeworm stamp, her guide dog ID and her pre-approval from Heathrow Animal Reception (animal customs clearing agency). They insisted that while her documents where fine she wouldn’t be allowed entry to the UK so couldn’t board the flight to London. I argued back that she had been pre-approved by Animal Reception at Heathrow and they were aware of us returning and would be waiting at the plane door in Heathrow as they always do (it even said so in the letter I was showing them, flight number, date and all). Nobody believed me. They called the shift manager. Everyone else was still waiting to continue boarding while I was blocked in at the gate counter. It must have looked as if they were trying to make sure I didn’t run away. I mean, where would I have gone? The shift manager came, looked at everything again, and asked the same questions again. I voiced my frustration. She made a phone call and what a surprise realized that everything indeed was fine. They didn’t apologize for their behavior. I finally got onto the plane to go home and pick up my children from childcare. The on-board crew was amazingly friendly and even gave me a free snack. Animal reception met me at the plane, gave Lassie the all clear to enter the country, I went through border control, and off to the taxi we went.

You’re probably wondering how this can be topped? It can! And by quite a bit! I’m not going to reveal where this happened and go into all the details. This time I was with my family, husband and two children under 6, holiday luggage and Lassie. We tried to check in but were told Lassie wasn’t on the booking. I just thought “here we go again”.  We were asked to wait until everyone had checked in until they would try to sort it out. We refused as we know how long it can take, they threatened us with the police. We ended up waiting squashed between two check-in counters until the “representative” came to sort this out. Our children had to sit on their bums for an hour in front of our suitcases and Lassie half on them as there was no more space. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we had about a square meter and a half for all of us. In case you were wondering why my husband, or I didn’t go somewhere else with the kids? We all had to be present for check-in and we were told that the representative would be there within a couple of minutes and we needed to wait. When we voiced that we had heard that a few times now, we were threatened with the police again. This time to top it off, she even suggested that we were trying to smuggle Lassie into the UK. I started laughing derisively. If that would have been my plan, it truly would have been the most stupid plan ever. Me wandering around an airport with a dog, getting on a plane with a dog and then walking through customs in the UK, thinking no-one would notice would really have been a genius plan…

I was so frustrated and really had to work hard not to let it out. I stayed polite and friendly in comparison to the ground staff. I was frustrated and angry and upset with myself as my disability had caused issues yet again and this time my children had to suffer, as well. The staff member just ignored us and kept checking people in.

After an hour, the representative finally arrived and asked me to fill in a form. This was wrong and, sorry, stupid on so many levels. For one, they had all the information as the form simply asked for flight number, estimated time of arrival and so forth, and secondly, filling in a form by hand isn’t really the forte of a blind person. When my husband tried to do it, they told him I had to do it as it was my dog. When I said I can’t the response was “so you are refusing? If you refuse to fill this in we can call the police and you can’t get onto your flight”. We explained that I was not refusing but not able to. Finally, we managed to get our boarding passes, and just managed to buy a snack for our kids before we had to board. Again, no apologies.

I wrote a three-page complaint letter to the airline. They responded well. The check-in staff and the representative since had to go through additional customer service trainings and I got airmiles. I would give you all my miles if I wouldn’t have to go through anything like that again. The entire flight home, our kids kept saying “these people were so mean to you, mummy and to Lassie. They were so mean”.

I don’t want to scare anyone off from travelling with a guide dog. I have been on many flights with her without ever having an issue. But just like being on a train with her, trying to go to a restaurant, getting an Uber or a taxi, there are always those people who make your life harder. I really hope that awareness and education will help reduce those incidents and make them disappear altogether. I just want to live my life. Being blind has its challenges anyway, so people shouldn’t make it harder for us. Going out and about takes courage if you can’t see and it takes long to dare to do after sight loss; experiences like this will break a person’s confidence. I can feel my confidence waver in those moments, and I’ve been disabled all my life and mastered many things most people would consider impossible for a person who is registered blind.

I also want to say that I’m aware that guide dogs are a rarity at airports. While I hope that one day, check in staff at the special assistance counters (if they exist) all know how to do it, I don’t mind people having to ask or double-check what the process is. It’s the accusations, rudeness, and the sheer lack of consideration that I’ve got a problem with. There are so many staff members who are friendly and polite, but some spoil it for everyone. A-star celebrities are not a common occurrence either, but probably never experience anything like this.

Finally, to all bystanders: If you happen to witness a similar situation, I would appreciate if you could help or at least not make it worse – I’ve had experiences where I got very unhelpful comments from fellow travelers, but I won’t go into any detail about them here. Thank you!

Becoming visible

Today is the International Day for the Rights of People with Disabilities (IDPWD). This year’s theme is “Not all disabilities are visible”. What does this mean? Well, in a narrower sense, it means that I will join the international disability pride and awareness movement by wearing purple #purpleLightUp. Even my guide dog has a little…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: