Airlines, landlords, business owners and even state legislatures are clamping down on people who abuse legal protections for emotional support companion animals in order to bring their household pets to places where they might otherwise be denied entry, but in many cases, federal penalties for denying a legitimate support animal could make those efforts risky.
Attempts to curb the abuse of legal protections for support animals are gaining support at the state and local level, but federal rules could make denying access to emotional support companions a costly mistake if it is determined that the action violated the rights of a person with less obvious disabilities. So far, federal lawmakers and regulators appear reluctant to address the issue at all.
For years, the airline industry trade organization Airlines for America (A4A) has complained that federal protections for emotional support animals were nebulous and confusing, making it nearly impossible for airlines to set policies to ensure that passengers aren’t gaming the system. Airlines have been in the unenviable position of having to balance the consequences of erring on the side of diplomacy when it comes to calling out a potentially dubious emotional support animal claim or facing the backlash when denying boarding to animal companions.
“We’re not asking the DOT [Department of Transportation] to get off our back. In some cases, we’re asking that they increase or clarify rules and regulations, so we can improve our service,” the lobbying group said in a 2018 release. “Vague regulations create challenges for airlines to provide the travel experience our passengers expect and deserve. The DOT providing [sic] a better understanding on issues like the definition of service animals, or what they mean when they direct prompt service for disabled passengers, allows our industry the opportunity to improve. We’re not trying to charge for these things or mitigate costs. We want to have a better understanding, so we can provide better service to communities that deserve every consideration.”
The New York Times reports that state legislatures are increasingly jumping into the fray. A new law in Virginia makes it easy to prosecute websites that offer fraudulent emotional support animal certifications for a fee. Oklahoma recently passed legislation that affirms a business’ right to prohibit so-called emotional support animals. In Utah, it is now a crime to falsely represent one’s pet as a service animal or emotional support companion.
Federal officials, however, are warning that state laws will offer little protection for those who run afoul of federal laws designed to protect the rights of the disabled. Although the Americans with Disability Act protects the right to have a trained service animal, the existing laws do not offer those same protections for emotional support animals. Federal fair housing laws, on the other hand, have been interpreted to prohibit discrimination against those in need of emotional support animals. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which again trumps state and local laws, specifically prescribe that airlines not prohibit passengers from bringing certified emotional support animals on planes with them.
Airline officials say that the current murky rules harm the very passengers they were designed to help in the first place. The carriers say that not only does the upswing in questionable claims about emotional support animals’ bonafides create extra hurdles for those in need of trained service animals, but note that guide dogs have actually been attacked and harassed on planes by untrained companion animals. Unfortunately, the trend towards tightening the rules at the state level will do very little help in these circumstances.
“The rise in serious incidents involving animals in flight leads us to believe that the lack of regulation in both health and training screening for these animals is creating unsafe conditions across U.S. air travel,” Delta VP John Laughter said in a statement announcing tighter policies at the carrier last February. “As a leader in safety, we worked with our Advisory Board on Disability to find a solution that supports those customers with a legitimate need for these animals, while prioritizing a safe and consistent travel experience.”
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