Open Letter from the National Federation of the Blind to All Airlines

December 22, 2020

The National Federation of the Blind is America’s civil rights organization of the blind, including blind people who use guide dogs, who are specifically represented by National Association of Guide Dog Users, one of our special-interest divisions. We are writing to you regarding the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule on Traveling by Air with Service Animals (85 FR 79742).

As you know, the rule gives airlines discretionary authority to “require passengers with a disability traveling with a service animal to complete and submit to the airline a form, developed by DOT, attesting to the animal’s training and good behavior, and certifying the animal’s good health.” Airlines may also require the submission of a second form for flight segments of at least eight hours in duration “attesting that the animal has the ability either not to relieve itself on a long flight or to relieve itself in a sanitary manner.”

We recognize the challenges that led DOT to issue this new rule, which include the proliferation of dogs and other animals that provide a number of services to a wide range of people with disabilities. At the same time, as we have noted, the ability of airlines to require the above attestations from travelers with disabilities is discretionary. We are writing to urge you not to apply these new requirements to blind people traveling with guide dogs.

Guide dogs have now been used by blind people for nearly a century, and reputable programs and protocols for the training of guide dogs have existed for almost that entire time. Indeed, guide dogs were not the primary reason propounded by airlines for seeking the authority to require the above-described attestations, because both airlines and the general public have long been familiar with blind people traveling with well-disciplined, well-trained dogs. At the same time, paperwork requirements pose a unique challenge to blind passengers. No matter how well-thought-out, the process of preparing and submitting such paperwork is likely to be inaccessible to people who do not have the specific technology to complete the form or to independently determine where to apply their signature. The rule does require airlines to allow the submission of the DOT forms electronically, but this can be done independently only if a blind person has a computer equipped with screen reader technology and if the airline website is fully compatible with the blind person’s access technology. Even with all these conditions in place, the process of booking air travel online is usually time-consuming and difficult enough for blind passengers without the addition of the DOT forms to the booking process. In short, the longstanding and deservedly high reputation of guide dogs used by the blind, combined with the disproportionate burden that paperwork places on blind people, simply do not justify the imposition of the discretionary requirements allowed by the final regulation.

Representatives of the National Federation of the Blind are happy to meet with you to discuss these concerns. We are committed to protecting our right to travel with guide dogs while helping airlines ensure the safe and disruption-free travel experience that everyone desires. We would like the opportunity to further discuss why we feel the new paperwork requirements should not be imposed for guide dogs, but we are also prepared to discuss ways in which such a policy can be implemented, if at all, in a manner that is accessible and equitable.

I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you. I can be reached by email at officeofthepresident@nfb.org or by telephone at 410-659-9314.

Sincerely,

Mark A. Riccobono, President
National Federation of the Blind