The Tonto Policy

Wilhelm van Deventer’s faithful guide dog, Tonto.

Wilhelm van Deventer explains how the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) played a major role in the development of a new policy for passengers flying with their service dogs.

“On Friday February 6 this year, my wife, my guide dog, Tonto, and I flew from OR Tambo International Airport to Cape Town International Airport. We had booked way in advance, informing the airline that we’d be travelling with Tonto. About two days before the flight, we confirmed the arrangement with them,” recalls Van Deventer.

“Everything went smoothly until we reached ACSA security, where we were asked to present written proof that Tonto is in fact a guide dog, his vaccination card and that he was in quarantine for 72 hours before the flight. This was the first we had heard about any of this. We were not allowed to fly on our reserved flight and were dumped on airline personnel, who were luckily extremely helpful.”

Family members, friends, colleagues and Van Deventer himself immediately set the ball rolling on social media. The print media and radio stations also ran the story for about a week.

“My wife and I wrote an official letter of complaint to ACSA. They played a major role in the development of what a friend of mine now calls the ‘Tonto Policy’. All service dog owners are immensely grateful to ACSA and the respective airlines. This is a clear policy with practical procedures which serves the interests of all parties,” says Van Deventer.

So what does a passenger travelling with a service animal need to do? Gail Glover, executive director of the South African (SA) Guide-Dogs Association for the blind, explains: “When a service dog owner (SDO) books an air ticket, they need to inform the booking agent that they have a working dog. Owners must take their dog’s veterinary book, which has proof of identification chip details, and/or their SA Guide-Dogs Access Card with them when they travel. The best option is to present both. If it is not an emergency flight, the SA Guide-Dogs Association must also send a letter verifying that the owner is a registered SDO. In the case of an emergency, the airlines can contact the association to verify that the owner is a registered SDO.”

On checking in, the SDO needs to give the agent all this documentation. At this point, the traveller can ask for the seat next to them to be blocked, if the plane is not full. “The dog will lie on the floor under the seat in front of the SDO or under the blocked seat. Some dogs are larger than others, so it is more comfortable if there is space for the dog to lie,” explains Glover.

The procedure varies slightly depending on which airline is used. Mango, for example, asks their clients travelling with service animals to fill in a “special medical needs request form” when booking. So it is important to check with the airline of your choice whether they do in fact make provision for people travelling with service animals, what documentation is required, and whether they are willing to block out an extra seat when possible.

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