Airlines, Disabled Passengers Weigh Proposed Access Rules

Potential changes by a federal agency could affect how service dogs are transported and safety data presented.


IN the last four years, Michael Osborn, a 50-year-old Laguna Beach marketing consultant, has flown to 14 countries for business and pleasure. He is always accompanied by Hastings, his 75-pound yellow Labrador. Hastings has been the perfect traveler, Osborn says, spending much of every flight dozing under his master's seat.

Osborn hopes things can stay that way, but like other fliers who rely on guide dogs, he is wary of some proposed changes to the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986.

The act prohibits discrimination against passengers who have a disability. The U.S. Department of Transportation, charged with implementing it, is re-evaluating some of its regulations. The goal, agency spokesman Bill Mosley said, is to update the act and clarify it, because amendments and new interpretations had made it a patchwork. The department issued its proposed new rules in late 2004 and then accepted comments and suggestions; a final set of regulations will be published as soon as possible, Mosley said.One suggested change proposes that owners of large guide dogs whose animals couldn't fit under the seat be offered several options -- moving to another available seat that could accommodate the passenger and dog, buying a second seat, taking another flight or putting the dog in cargo hold. Mosley emphasizes that buying another seat is simply an option. "Airlines cannot require you to pay," he said.

Kimberly Riddle, also from the agency, gave more details.

"The airline cannot force a passenger to transport a service animal in the cargo hold. However, if the service animal will not fit under the seat or a collection of seats in the cabin [and the passenger hasn't bought a separate seat], the animal must be removed from the airline cabin. FAA rules require that items of mass be stowed safely. This includes service animals."

Buying another seat, said Osborn and others who use guide dogs, could create a financial burden. And separating a guide dog and its master by putting the animal in the hold would be traumatic for both. "He is my eyes," said Osborn, who lost his vision in 1994 and got 6-year-old Hastings four years ago. They are never apart, he noted, and he fears such a trip would put Hastings "in shock" and render him unable to work.

Some of the other proposed changes are also triggering debate from the traveling public. The airline industry is protesting the increased costs of implementing the changes.

The department is evaluating the input from the industry and the public. (To read comments, go to dms.dot.gov, click on "Simple Search" and enter Docket No. 19482. To read about proposed new rules on accessibility for wheelchair air passengers, go to latimes.com/healthytraveler.)

Organizations such as the Guide Dogs for the Blind and the National Assn. of the Deaf are among those that have submitted comments and protests.

"Cargo is not a safe place for dogs," said Michael Hingson, a spokesman for the San Rafael, Calif.-based Guide Dogs for the Blind. He has been with his guide dog, Roselle, an 8 1/2 -year-old Lab, for seven years.

"What we are really saying is a guide dog is an extension of a blind person, and you should not limit the right to travel simply because I use a guide dog," said Hingson, whose organization opposes the proposed provisions about the cargo hold and buying an extra seat.

"The allergy issue keeps coming up," he said. But a guide dog and a traveler who suffers from allergies can be seated far enough apart so it's not an issue, he added.

On a large airplane, that is probably true, said Dr. Marc Riedl, an allergist and assistant professor of allergy and immunology at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "There may be exceptions to that, especially if the air circulating system is poor or if the patient is extremely sensitive to the allergen."

But it may pose a bigger problem on smaller planes, he said.

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