A solution to some of the anxiety that Deborah Kehoe Wade and other pet owners suffer when they have to put a furry family member on a plane may be around the corner.
It's the sort of anxiety Wade experienced when she moved from Washington, D.C., to Bogota, Colombia, two years ago, despite paying a New York pet travel service more than $2,000 to ship her pets.
"The guy in New York did a good job," Wade says of the service. "He was very nice. But it was kind of disconcerting. You never met him. You just talked to him on the phone. And you're trusting him with your pet.
"I do think it would be nice to take your dog out to the airport and hand your pet to a person who can tell you that they personally will put your pet on the plane and see to his needs," she says.
Soon, pet owners who live in a handful of large U.S. cities will have the ability to do that. Pet Airways plans to begin service on July 14 as the USA's first pets-only carrier — no human passengers allowed. The introductory fare: $149 each way. For that, pets will be flown in individual crates in lighted and pressurized plane cabins, with a human attendant checking them every 15 minutes. They'll board, just like people, from their own airport lounges and get overnight lodging accommodations on long-haul flights. Their owners can track their whereabouts at all times online. They can even earn "pet points" as frequent fliers.
Pet Airways won't solve every owner's needs initially. It will serve only five U.S. destinations: Baltimore/Washington International Airport, plus non-commercial airports in the New York City area, and in Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. It's catering to dogs and cats starting out. And it'll fly each route once a week.
But Pet Airways founders, husband and wife team Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel, have big expansion plans and are convinced there will be plenty of demand from pet lovers to achieve them.
"We're planning on growth to 25 cities in the next couple of years," Binder says.
Potty breaks for 'pawsengers'
Lots of start-up airlines with big ambitions have failed. Unlike Pet Airways, most didn't launch amid a deep recession. But Binder and Wiesel believe they've found the right specialty market and a modest enough operating plan to make it.
"There're about 87 million U.S. households that have pets. It's a niche market, no doubt. But the pet community — pet owners and pet lovers — they get it," Binder says. "They've known for a long time that there's a need for this. We're pet owners ourselves. We are our own market."
The key to Pet Airways' success may be its choice of aircraft: the affordable, economical Beech 1900. Designed as a 19-passenger turboprop for use by regional carriers serving small markets, the 1900 used to be one of the most widely used planes by regional airlines. But travelers' preference for jets forced airlines to abandon turboprops starting in the late 1990s, even though jets are more expensive to operate. That left the market flooded with little-used 1900s.
Geoffrey Gallup, co-owner of Suburban Air Freight, an Omaha-based air-freight specialist that will operate Pet Airways' planes under contract, says he can supply as many 1900s as Pet Airways needs. If it needs more than the four 1900s currently in Suburban Air's fleet, Gallup says, more can be obtained for about $1.5 million each. That's paltry compared with the $10 million to $35 million price tags on used jets.
The 1900 won't fly as fast or as far as a jet. But unlike time-conscious humans, dogs and cats shouldn't mind. Making more frequent stops for fuel actually is a good thing for animals. It'll give attendants time to get the animals out of the plane for a walk and potty break.
With all its passenger seats removed except those for in-flight pet attendants, the 1900 can hold up to 50 small animal crates, though typically it will fly with smaller numbers of what the airline calls "pawsengers."
"It's a completely novel idea that is fascinating to me," Gallup says. "The more we talked to Dan and Alysa about it, the more we came to see that they've done their homework."
Pet comfort and owners' peace of mind are what Pet Airways is selling more than the transportation. It's a lesson Binder and Wiesel learned from experience.
In 2005, the couple moved from California's Bay Area, where they'd been successful recruiters for and consultants to several venture-capital groups and tech start-ups. They figured that Zoe, their 17-year-old Jack Russell terrier, was too old to make the cross-country drive to Delray Beach, Fla., comfortably. Zoe traveled in the dark belly of a jetliner.
Zoe survived the flight better than Binder and Wiesel, who fretted while their dog was in transit.
"We thought there had to be a better way," Binder says. That was the genesis of Pet Airways.
Owners' fear bigger than risk
Few of the estimated 1 million or more animals that fly annually are lost, injured or die during air travel. In 2005, the first year that airlines had to report those numbers, 102 pets died, 48 were reported injured and 30 more were lost. In 2008, only 31 pets (dogs, cats and birds) died in transit on airlines, with only eight injuries and four animals reported as lost, according to the website PetFlight.com.
But it's not necessarily statistics that matter most to owners. It's a perceived lack of comfort, the sometimes hassle involved in transporting live animals by air, and a fear that their pets will be harmed that spark anxiety.
There are commonly quoted, but hard-to-substantiate, statistics from various animal welfare groups that suggest more pets are harmed in transit than the officially reported numbers indicate. Pet Airways itself quotes a study by the San Francisco SPCA that estimates that about 5,000 animals are injured, out of an estimated 1 million to 2 million that travel by air each year.
It's Pet Airways' goal to ease those concerns by convincing owners its service is safer.
"We're going to provide a level of care that will both keep your pet comfortable and make you comfortable with the whole process of transporting them," Binder says.
Not the only way to fly
Pet Airways isn't launching its service into a competitive vacuum. Although their policies vary widely, all the USA's biggest passenger airlines allow at least some type of pet travel.
Even Southwest luv, which had never allowed pets onboard, announced last month that it would let cats and dogs in the cabin if their approved carriers fit under a passenger's seat.
In recent years, two airlines, Continental cal and Delta dal, have created special operations aimed at treating animals better. The few available statistics don't prove conclusively that their approach is safer or more successful, but their goal is to make people comfortable with the idea of putting their pets on planes, thereby giving the owners greater reason to fly on them, too.
Continental's PetSafe program (Delta's similar program is called Pet First) features airport kennels at its hubs and temperature-controlled vans that deliver pets to planes moments before they push back from gates and pick them up immediately after a plane docks. That gives pets last-on/first-off treatment and reduces chances of prolonged exposure to temperature extremes on the loading ramp and potential hazards in cargo areas.
"We have specialized workers in our hubs who actually bid for PetSafe jobs. That's all they do, work with animals all day long," says Lisa Schoppa, manager of product development in Continental's cargo division. "Most importantly, they're empowered. If they see something wrong with a puppy, for example, they have full authority to pull that puppy off the flight line and take them to a vet if they think that's necessary."
In addition, there are about 300 independent pet travel specialists around the world who are members of the Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association. These companies are best described as travel agencies for pets, says Gay O'Brien, IPATA's president and head of family-owned O'Brien Animal Transportation & Services in Foster City, Calif.
Pet travel companies help humans navigate the complex and often contradictory rules that govern animal travel.
Their services, which can include door-to-door service or other special handling arrangements, cost more than dealing directly with the airlines, even though most animals shipped this way wind up being on the same planes. But pet travel companies argue that their value-added services reduce owners' hassles, and are worth it.
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