There could be fewer animals on planes, if Sen. Richard Burr has his way.
The Republican senator from North Carolina introduced legislation Tuesday that he championed as an effort to protect the ability of people with disabilities — including veterans — to travel with trained service animals.
According to a news release, the legislation aims to:
▪ Align the definition of a “service animal” under the Air Carriers Access Act with the definition under the Americans with Disabilities Act).
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▪ Establish a criminal penalty for misrepresenting a pet as a service animal and falsely claiming disability needs.
▪ Require federal agencies to establish a standard of service-animal behavior training for the animals.
The ACAA prohibits discrimination on a commercial aircraft against anyone with a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Part of the ACAA allows the use of an “emotional support or psychiatric service animal” under certain conditions, the news release said.
The ADA specifically defines "service animal" and does not include animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support.
Burr's proposed legislation would amend the ACAA to bring it more in line with ADA regulations, including:
▪ Specifically defining a "service animal" according to ADA standards.
▪ Barring animals not currently recognized by the ADA.
▪ Barring animals whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support.
▪ Requiring that in order to qualify as a service animal, a dog must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
▪ Making it illegal for a person to knowingly and willfully make a false statement to bring an animal on a commercial plane.
▪ Prohibiting false statements or representations about whether an animal is a trained service animal.
▪ Requiring the secretary of transportation, attorney general, secretary of Veterans Affairs, commercial airlines and private industry to establish a standard of service-animal behavior training for people seeking accommodation under the ACAA.
The ADA defines a service animal as a creature that has been trained to perform specific tasks to assist people with disabilities, such as dogs that help blind people navigate. An animal would not be considered a service animal if it provided emotional support but did not perform tasks.
If the the proposed legislation became law as written, people who have mental disabilities who need to travel with emotional support or "psychiatric service" animals may still be able to fly with their animals, but they would no longer receive the protections against discrimination afforded by the ACAA.
Those people would be subject to airline fees and airline-specific pet policies in the same way a person traveling with a pet would be.
This could put Burr at odds with mental health advocates who see emotional support animals as a crucial part of treatment for some people with mental disabilities.
Burr's proposed legislation comes as some people have pushed the limits to try to bring pets — including exotic animals such as kangaroos and peacocks — on board commercial flights and other passengers have expressed concern about traveling with untrained, uncaged animals.
U.S. airlines flew 751,000 emotional support animals last year, an about 80 percent increase from 2016, an informal survey by industry group Airlines for America found, according to The Dallas Morning News. Those animals included dogs and cats along with rabbits, ducks, monkeys and more.
Some airlines already have announced stricter rules for traveling with emotional support animals, including requiring specific medical documentation.
Burr's legislation has the backing of Airlines for America, which represents the airline industry.
Burr said his proposal also has support from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO; K9s for Warriors; the American Legion, and the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans.
“Today, I’m proud to introduce legislation that will protect the ability of individuals and veterans with disabilities to travel with their trained service animals,” Burr said in a statement on Wednesday. “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. This bill will help clearly define what is a ‘service animal’ and will establish penalties for those fraudulently claiming disability needs.”