New airline Pet Airways' only passengers to be four-legged

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.

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