Congress Eyes New Ways to Tighten the Leash on Emotional Support Animals on Airlines

WASHINGTON — With hundreds of thousands of emotional support animals taking to the skies on U.S. airlines, Congress may start putting them on a tighter leash.

Two new legislative options emerged this week to address a hairy issue for Fort Worth-based American Airlines, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and other carriers, which are dealing with a growing number of injuries, confrontations and other problems resulting from comfort pets.

A bill by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would tighten rules so only “service animals,” as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, could fly uncaged in the cabin. An amendment by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., would instead direct the U.S. Transportation Department to clarify existing rules.

Either option would be contentious, despite wide agreement that the current setup is too unrestricted and subject to bald-faced abuse.

But Burr’s approach, which is backed by the airline industry, is sure to generate an uproar. His legislation would effectively prevent emotional support animals from getting on board, putting him at odds with mental health advocates who see the pets as vital for some fliers.

The senator, however, cast his bill as common sense.

“One doesn’t have to look far to find rampant cases of abuse where even emotional support kangaroos have been allowed to fly on planes to the detriment of fellow travelers and handlers of trained service animals,” he said in a news release.

No one disputes the rise of emotional support animals.

U.S. airlines flew 751,000 comfort pets last year, an 80 percent jump from the previous year, according to an informal survey by the industry group Airlines for America. Those animals include dogs and cats, yes. But also rabbits, ducks, parakeets and monkeys.

No one disputes the potential pitfalls of a flying zoo.

Association of Professional Flight Attendants president Nena Martin, who represents American Airlines flight attendants, wrote that the status quo has “led to a variety of issues in flight that are not readily solvable in a small, contained cabin at 35,000 feet where resources are limited.”

And no one disputes the underlying problem.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act has strict rules for how service dogs used by those with disabilities can function in public spaces, another law, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, is much more generous about what kind of animals can come in an airplane cabin.

The intractable question, however, has been what to do about it all.

Most of the policy attention has focused on shoring up the looser aviation rules, which accommodate any animal that is “able to provide assistance to a person with a disability” or that “assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support.”

Some fliers have taken advantage of that wiggle room, using companies that allow travelers to pay for the needed medical proof by completing cursory online questionnaires.

Recognition of a problem

The U.S. Transportation Department has recognized the problem, asking a disability rights panel two years ago to hash out a compromise.

There was a consensus that something must be done to keep untrained animals from making it on board. But the group couldn’t come to an agreement, with some stakeholders worrying that fliers who rely on well-trained comfort pets could be forced out.

The Transportation Department nevertheless plans to take a shot at rewriting the rules this year. Some carriers, such as Delta Air Lines, have started tightening rules on their own. And now Congress is involved, though any legislation remains a long way from becoming law.

“We’re taking an all-of-the-above approach,” Airlines for America senior vice president Sharon Pinkerton said this month, expressing support for all those avenues.

One approach, offered by Shuster, would make sure the Transportation Department tackles the issue. The House transportation committee chairman included that request in the “manager’s amendment” that he submitted to a bill that would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao would have 18 months to issue a rule that better defines “service animals” for purposes of air travel and sets “minimum standards for what is required for service and emotional support animals carried in aircraft cabins.”

Burr’s legislation, meanwhile, would take a more proscriptive approach.

It would “bar animals not currently recognized by the ADA, would not allow animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support, and would require that in order to qualify as a service animal a dog must be individually trained” to do disability-related work or tasks.

The bill would also establish a criminal penalty for making misrepresentations about a service animal.

SOURCE: Dallas News