Airports Find Various Ways to Provide Relief Areas for Service Animals, Pets

Airports Find Various Ways to Provide Relief Areas for Service Animals, Pets
Thomas J. Smith
Published in: 

"If you build it, they will come."

In this case, however, the "it" is not a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, but animal relief areas inside airports.

Since August, all U.S. commercial airports have been required to provide a post-security service animal relief area (SARA); and airport operators are responding with a wide variety of options. Specially constructed facilities range from small, utilitarian spaces in obscure areas to entire rooms with finish materials that match nearby human restrooms. Self-contained ready-to-install commercial units are another viable solution. 

Although the requirement was designed to accommodate passengers traveling with service animals, pet owners and handlers working with law enforcement dogs also stand to benefit.  


Project: Post-Security Animal Relief Areas
Detroit Metropolitan Airport
Terminal: McNamara 
Operator: Delta Air Lines
Installation: 2014
Consultant: Arconcepts 
Contractor: The Petersen Companies
Product: Porch Potty
Terminal: North 
Owner: Wayne County Airport Authority
Installation: 2016
Cost: $130,000
Design Consultant: Arconcepts 
Contractor: The Petersen Companies
Advisory Consultants: Paws with a Cause; Leader Dogs for the Blind

Philadelphia Int'l Airport
Terminals A-F
Temporary Measure: 7 portable units
Cost: $7,500/unit
Product Mfr: Proctor Production
Long-Term Solution: Prototype area co-located with human restrooms under construction near Gate D3
Cost: $75,000
Est. Completion: Jan. 2017
Designers: Kelly/Maiello Architects; CDA&I Architecture and Interiors
Contractor: Daniel J. Keating Co.
Advisory Consultants: Liberty Resources, Int'l Assoc. of Assistance Dog Partners; Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations

T.F. Green Airport-Providence, RI
North Concourse
Cost: Minimal, largely built with on-hand materials 
Design & Construction: Airport employees
Advisory Consultant: Dynamic Dog Training Services

For decades, outdoor relief areas were the norm, but the need-and demand-for indoor facilities has grown as airport security has tightened. Previously, passengers traveling with service animals or pets typically had to leave an airport's secure zone to find a suitable relief area for their animals. Passengers with tight connections were often hard pressed to locate and travel to outdoor relief areas and pass back through TSA checkpoints in time to catch their flights. 

Last August, the Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted a final rule requiring the every airport install at least one post-security service animal relief area in each terminal. The rule gave operators until August 2016 to comply or risk $27,500 fines. 

While the DOT does not mandate specific sizes, designs, materials or maintenance standards for the areas, it does require them to be wheelchair accessible. It also requires airports to consult with local service animal training organizations for suggestions about designs, materials and locations.

Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit that raises awareness of wide-ranging issues facing consumers with disabilities, has been consulting with airports about service animal relief areas for 16 years-both gratis and for a fee. 

Eric Lipp, director of the Chicago-based organization, notes that post-security areas require more planning than their outdoor, pre-security predecessors. "The indoor design needs to be really thought out," Lipp advises. "It needs to be accessible to those in a wheelchair-they need to be able to reach down and cleanup after their animal. There should be good irrigation and a regular cleaning schedule."

Lipp further explains that there is a conflict between two current laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Air Carriers Access Act (ACAA). While ADA holds airports responsible for compliance, ACAA places the onus on airlines. 

The early pioneers were airlines and airports that took the initiative not because anyone was forcing them, but because they wanted to do the right thing, notes Lipp.  

Now that animal relief areas are a federal requirement, cost and logistics are hot topics. After consulting with dozens of airports around the globe about pre- and post-security facilities, Open Doors notes that construction costs can vary widely. According to Lipp, the most significant expenses often include extending water and sewer lines and the corresponding concrete work that follows. Airports may also lose future revenue if concession space is used.

With the compliance deadline looming, numerous airports unveiled new animal relief areas this spring and summer. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport took a "holistic approach" by locating its post-security animal relief areas near rooms for nursing mothers, notes Lipp. 

Airport Improvement talked to three airports of various sizes, in various parts of the country. Each approached the challenge differently.

Airline Steps Up In Detroit  

At Detroit Metropolitan (DTW), an airline took the lead in one terminal and the airport in the other. DTW also has three pre-security outdoor relief areas.

Delta Air Lines, which operates and maintains the McNamara Terminal it uses as a hub, installed an indoor relief area there in April 2014, "[Delta] saw a need to help their connecting passengers with service animals and pets so they did not have to leave the terminal," explains Dale Walker, the airport's ADA coordinator and deputy director of Facilities, Design and Construction.

The carrier carved out 360 square feet of a wide-body holdroom adjacent to restrooms and installed two pre-fabricated units called Porch Potties. Each unit is connected to the sanitary sewer system and is equipped with a pop-up sprinkler, similar to those in underground lawn watering systems, that rinses the area's surface at the push of a button. Similar units are used by pet owners living in high-rise apartment buildings.  

Each of the units at DTW is wheelchair accessible and has a model fire hydrant. (See sidebar on Page 57.) The area also includes a sink for handwashing. 

In the North Terminal, DTW used vacant concession space to meet the DOT requirement. The new station is adjacent to restrooms, which allowed easy access to water and sewer lines. According to Walker, the area was built from scratch for about $130,000-including demolition of the previous concession space and modifications to the existing HVAC system, to provide adequate exhaust.

The 320-square-foot room is partially open to the concourse, with a relief area at the back behind a partition that contains a sink. The raised kidney-shaped relief area is about 10 feet long and equipped with pop-up sprinklers. "The biggest change was to build a larger platform to accommodate more than one dog at a time, while maintaining wheelchair accessibility," Walker explains.

DTW hired the same designer, Arconcepts, that had designed Delta's facility; and the same general contractor, The Petersen Companies, also won the bid for the North Terminal facility.

The airport consulted with two Michigan-based service animal organizations about both areas: Paws with a Cause and Leader Dogs for the Blind. 

Maintenance of self-service animal relief areas is sometimes an issue, notes Walker. "Service animals are well-trained and their handlers are more conscientious about picking up solids," he says, adding that pets and their owners are not always as dutiful.  "They don't always use the Porch Potty, and instead sometimes go elsewhere in the facility. Regardless, with more service animals and pets traveling these days, the relief areas seem to be a welcome addition." 

Philly's Dual-Track Efforts 

With seven terminals, Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) had more work on its hands to comply with the new DOT requirement. In July, it placed a portable animal relief unit behind the security checkpoint in each terminal while a team worked on the design and construction of a prototype for a more permanent solution. 

For years, the airport has had seven "pet ports" in grassy areas outside the terminals. 

"We wanted to find a short-term solution that meets the requirement but also a long-term solution that works in our terminal complex and benefits all passengers and law enforcement officers," explains Craig Hinton, PHL's airport engineering assistant manager. "We worked with various stakeholders to find the best place in each terminal where the units would be accessible and used."

The portable units, fabricated by Proctor Productions, cost $7,500 each, including materials and installation. Each of the three-sided 8-foot-by-7-foot units has a green artificial turf area, drainage grating, a faux fire hydrant and a sealed base to catch waste. 

There is no running water in the portable units, but maintenance crews clean them each night. Workers remove the turf and replace the absorbent pads beneath, and then clean the turf and base.  

After the DOT adopted its final rule, PHL formed a committee with representatives from its ADA-compliance team, risk assessment, legal, engineering, facilities and planning. The committee researched several different pre-fabricated portable units and consulted with Liberty Resources, the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners and the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations.

Only one of the seven portable units has been moved because its initial placement was too close to stores and restaurants, Hinton notes. "Our custodial staff reports that they are still being called to deal with animal waste in the holdrooms and corridors, so we are still pushing out the word on the new portable units."

According to observations by PHL staff, the portable units are typically used once a day. With more than 31 million annual passengers, the airport processes nearly 1,100 departing and arriving flights per day.

As part of its continual program to upgrade restrooms throughout the airport, PHL is incorporating a prototype animal relief station into the restroom block near Gate D3. When complete, the area will include four restrooms: men's, women's, a companion care room and a service animal relief room. The animal relief facility is anticipated to cost  $75,000, reports Hinton.

Philadelphia Int’l is providing portable units
while it tests a more permanent solution.

Kelly/Maiello Architects and CDA&I Architecture and Interiors are designing the space, which will have the same finishes as the adjacent human restrooms. Daniel J. Keating Co. is the general contractor for all the restroom improvements.

The permanent facility will include an at-grade patch of artificial turf, a recessed drain pan with a hose to wash the area, a hands-free hand washing station and a dog bowl water dispenser.

The D3 facility is scheduled to be completed in January.

As PHL upgrades other restroom blocks, it will consider incorporating more service animal facilities. "It is an open question as to how many more locations," Hinton says. "We want to see how well the portable and permanent facilities work."

In-House Solution at T.F. Green

As a non-hub facility with about 3.6 million annual passengers, T.F. Green Airport (PVD) in Providence, RI, has a much different perspective on, and approach to, the new DOT requirement. Historically, there has been little need for one, explains Alan Andrade, senior vice president of Operations and Maintenance. 

Previously, a grassy area outside the terminal was the designated spot, and there were never any requests for other facilities, adds Andrade. The August compliance deadline and a changing passenger profile, however, have altered the airport's strategy. 

"Now that the airport has international destinations, there is a greater likelihood of a need," notes Andrade. In 2015, PVD served 25,888 passengers on international flights, which entail more time for passengers and their animals at the airport. 

Anticipating the August 2016 deadline, PVD formed an in-house committee that devised an in-house solution.

Airport tradesmen renovated a storage closet on the North Concourse, primarily using materials already on-hand. They removed existing walls and erected half-walls to create a 10-by-15-foot space and extended water and sewer lines to the repurposed space. A grass-like surface covers roughly one-quarter of the space, which also includes a self-flushing system, hose, sink and mini fire hydrant. (See sidebar to the right.)

The airport has not estimated cost for the project.

When crafting the space, PVD consulted Dynamic Dog Training Services, the local firm that provides relaxation dogs for the airport's patrolling PVD Pups program. 

To date, employees note that more therapy dogs than service animals use the airport's new indoor relief area. 

Fake Fire Hydrants: Clever Decor or Space-Wasting Cliché?

The animal relief area installed in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 2014 includes a small model fire hydrant; the area built in the North Terminal this year does not. 

"We have not put any such thing there," says Dale Walker, the airport's ADA coordinator and deputy director of Facilities, Design and Construction. "There are recommendations to use a rock or fire hydrant, but we are waiting to get feedback on the experience [from passengers]."

While the fire hydrant is a widely recognized symbol as a favorite place for dogs to lift their legs, some mock their use in service animal relief areas. Eric Lipp, director of Open Doors Organization, is squarely in the "anti" camp. Open Doors is a Chicago-based organization that raises awareness of various issues facing consumers with disabilities. 

Lipp explains that Miami International Airport put a fake fire hydrant its large, park-like outdoor relief area years ago, and since then, many other airports have followed suit.

"There is the misconception that dogs are attracted to fire hydrants. That is not true," says Lipp, suggesting that airports could just as well use trees as decorative props. 

In light of the recent Department of Transportation requirement for U.S. airports to install post-security animal relief areas, more and more airports will likely be debating the issue. "Indoors, space is a huge matter," Lipp advises, noting that fake fire hydrants can prove to be obstacles that dogs have trouble circling. 


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