New legislation seeks to penalize travelers flying with fake service animals

As various carriers tighten the leash on policies for flying with emotional support animals, new legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate aims to crack down on air travelers abusing current rules and even establish a criminal penalty.

Earlier this week, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) announced legislation to correlate the definition of a “service animal” under the Air Carriers Access Act with that of the Americans with Disabilities Act, further creating a criminal penalty for individuals making misrepresentations about a service animal.

It would require federal agencies to establish a standard of behavior for service animals who will be working on an aircraft.

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“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,” Sen. Burr said via news release.

“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.”

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) is proposing an amendment calling on the U.S. Transportation Department to clarify existing policies.

According to the Dallas Morning News, either option would be “contentious.”

While many believe that the current policies in place are indeed too loose, tighter rules would likely spark uproar from mental health advocates who see emotional support animals as vital for some in the high skies.

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In 2017, U.S. airlines flew 751,000 comfort pets — a whopping 80 percent leap from 2016, according to an informal survey from Airlines for America quoted by the Dallas Morning News.

Though widespread, formal change is likely a long way away, major carriers including United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines have tightened rules for flying with emotional support animals on their own.

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In January, the story of a woman who was denied boarding her United flight with an emotional support peacock went viral and sparked national debate about the ethics of the policy.