It seems rare these days to be on a flight that doesn’t have at least one dog on it. Passengers are bringing their pets on board either as service animals, emotional support animals, or are paying the pet fee to carry their furry friends on and keep them at their feet.

Dogs and their owners allowed to sit together on flight
Credit: Richard Atrero de Guzman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American Airlines, said that between 2016 and 2017, American saw an increase of more than 40 percent in customers who transported a service or support animal.

A service animal is different from an emotional support animal because it’s “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability,” according to the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network. But many airlines allow both service animals and emotional support animals as long as a medical health professional fills out a form.

So what does that mean for people who are allergic, or afraid, of dogs?

Sarah, a frequent traveler from Ohio who asked to only be identified by her first name, is severely allergic to dogs.

“I am uncomfortable with close proximity of pets that cause allergic symptoms,” she said. This allergy didn’t used to be as much of a problem, but Sarah said in recent travels she’s noticed a greater number of dogs flying in passenger areas.

“Recently I was seated next to a passenger and her uncaged dog,” she said. “It was leashed as she walked down the aisle and then sat and moved around on her lap for our two-hour flight. At times, it shook its fur and seemed to be antsy.”

The dog was friendly — licking Sarah’s arm and nuzzling her side. While some passengers would probably appreciate a little in flight cuddling, it made Sarah nervous. Her experience made her think that airlines should handle things differently.

“Perhaps they should ask if the passenger next to the animal is comfortable before allowing the pet and owner to get settled,” she said. “In that manner, all passengers would feel respected and safe. Afterall, peanuts as snacks on flights have been eliminated for those who are allergic.”

Airlines do tell passengers with severe allergies to contact them before the flight and ask not to be seated near another passenger traveling with a pet. Feinstein, the American Airlines spokesman, said if a customer is allergic, the airline will “separate the customer with the allergy as far apart as possible from the customer with the cabin pet.”

“For example, one customer seated in the front aircraft and the other seated in the rear of the aircraft,” he said.

If that won’t work, the airline lets the passenger with the pet stay on board and re-books the passenger with the allergies. “If this is not available or unacceptable to the customer with the allergy, we will attempt to rebook the passenger with the allergy on a later American Airlines flight,” he said.

Morgan Johnston, a spokeswoman for JetBlue, said her airline has a similar policy. “As with any allergies, customers with animal allergies are encouraged to speak with a crewmember if they have any concerns,” she said. “Crewmembers may be able to reseat customers in an area of the plane away from any animals, or assist with reaccomodation on a later flight.”

And Alyssa Eliasen, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said her airline allows a maximum of six pets to be booked on one flight, “however we rarely reach that number on one single flight.”

“If a customer has an allergy, we recommend they speak with a Customer Service Agent upon arrival to their departure gate where the employee working that flight will help accommodate the customer's needs,” she said.

But that may not be enough for everybody. In 2010, a group of Canadian doctors made news by writing in The Canadian Medical Association Journal that airlines should ban all pets from the cabin because of allergy concerns.

Air travel “should not include easily avoidable health risks. But it does on some major airlines, at least for passengers with allergies to pets,” they wrote. “Pets can be accommodated comfortably and safely in airplane cargo holds, which is where they belong ... Airlines must choose to put the needs of their human passengers first, or be forced to do so.”

But people who travel with pets take exception to that stance. Some airlines, including Southwest, do not allow pets in their cargo holds. And there is a risk that an animal will be injured or die if stowed below the place. In addition, people who travel with service animals need them during the flight.

Russell Hartstein, a dog behaviorist and trainer, said that dogs need to be properly trained before they can be allowed to fly.

“If a dog is fearful or phobic and does not have a rock-solid temperament, and behavior, they are not suitable to fly regardless of some patch or title someone has given them,” he said.

But that isn’t enough for Sarah, the Ohio traveler who sat next to a dog on a flight. She said that even though the dog was polite and well behaved, she would have preferred to have a different seat neighbor.

“It was curious and enjoyed leaning toward me and sniffing me,” she said. “However, it felt like an invasion of space and was quite uncomfortable for me. I spent the flight leaning as far into the aisle as possible.”