No bones about it, we’re a pet crazy country.
Need proof? According to the American Pet Products Association’s most recent survey, 62 percent of American households own a pet. And, if the rise in pet-friendly hotels, restaurants, theme-parks and tourist attractions is any measure, many of those pets get to tag along when their owners head out on the road.
When those trips involve airports, though, things can get rough long before the flight leaves the ground. That’s because while every airport has plenty of well-marked restrooms for people, not every airport offers areas for pets to find relief.
Those that do can really make a difference, says Kathy McCabe, publisher of an online travel newsletter. “I have an 11-year old wire fox terrier and know that travel can make many dogs nervous and anxious,” she said. “When they feel this way, they sometimes need to ‘go’ more often than usual. So it’s nice to be able to give a dog a break before getting on board the plane.”
To that end, airports in Phoenix, Austin, Salt Lake City and a number of other cities have had easy-to-find pet relief areas for years. However, in many other airports, travelers have had difficulty sniffing out appropriate or accessible places for their pooches to go.
But now, thanks to a new Department of Transportation regulation designed with service animals in mind, all travelers are finding it easier than ever to take their pets along for the ride.
The letter of the law
In May 2008, the Transportation Department gave airlines a year to comply with new rules requiring accessible relief areas, and escorts to those relief areas, for passengers traveling with service animals at each airport a carrier serves. DOT didn’t say how to make this happen, but James Briggs, vice-president for legal affairs at the airport membership organization ACI-NA, says airlines were instructed to buddy up with airports in each city to work things out.
In general, it seems they have. New — and newly improved — pet-relief areas have been popping up at airports all over the country. In part, these pet-relief parks are part of a trend to improve customer service. But the amenity also helps airlines and airports comply with the new rules.
Last June, for example, Philadelphia International Airport unveiled seven relief stations on the departures road and outside baggage claim. Described as a new service for all passengers with pets in tow, press releases also noted that the “pet ports” were recommended by the airport’s American’s with Disabilities Act Review Committee.
Additionally, Boston Logan International, Oakland International and Tucson International have recently opened brand new pet-relief areas.
Traveler Jenny Wedge says that while the new pet-relief area at John Wayne Airport in Orange County is small, “it does the trick and is ironically the same area where we used to have some planters where animals would relieve themselves anyway. Now we have an area clearly meant for animals that has a nice white picket fence, a fire hydrant and Astroturf.”
McCarran International in Las Vegas, which already had three relief areas, recently spent about $5,000 improving those spaces, adding chain-link fences, pea gravel and dog waste bag dispensers.
Miami International spent about $40,000 to build two pet parks, each with a bench for people and a fire hydrant for pets. (When the north terminal is complete, a third relief area will built.)
El Paso International recently opened its pet-relief area, which was built with recyclable materials salvaged from prior terminal projects.
Relief areas at Minneapolis-St. Paul International have not changed. However, the airport has “formalized arrangements with the airlines and with the Travelers Assistance program managers to ensure that disabled travelers who need access to those areas receive an escort to and from the pet-relief facility,” said Patrick Hogan, director of public affairs and marketing.
Relief landside and airside
Nearly every airport pet-relief area is located curbside, outside the secure areas. In response to the new law, though, some airports created, or are working on creating, relief areas on the secure side of the airport, eliminating the need to escort travelers with service animals back through security and providing convenient relief areas for travelers with short connection times.
Seattle-Tacoma International, Salt Lake City International and Fresno Yosemite International have already created post-security pet relief areas, although only people with service animals can access those areas in Salt Lake City.
And Detroit Metropolitan Airport is working with Delta to create a post-security relief area in the McNamara Terminal. “Our thinking,” says the Scott Wintner, a public affairs specialist, “is that since that terminal is Delta’s second-largest hub facility, and since a majority of customers using that terminal are connecting, it makes sense to have the relief area airside.”
While Delta and the Detroit Metro work that out, other airlines are working with airports nationwide to make sure pet-relief areas are open for pets do to their business.
An American Airlines spokesperson said that company is confident it is in compliance at all U.S. airports.
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson says their local “station leaders” are working airport-by-airport to ensure there are pet-relief areas where they serve.
And at Alaska Airlines, customer advocacy director Ray Prentice conducted a survey of every airport the airline serves and put together a detailed chart noting the location of each pet-relief area.
What a relief!
Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.