Four-Legged Frequent Fliers

ByERIC NOE

March 21, 2005 — -- When Jackie Fogel travels, she's more concerned with her travel companions' comfort than her own. That can make life difficult, because those companions are often traveling in the cargo hold.

Fogel, a professional dog handler, flies four to five times per year to dog shows around the country with her champion-caliber dogs. She's been showing dogs for 25 years, and in that time she's learned some valuable lessons on what to expect when traveling with animals.

In the past it was not uncommon to see kennels arrive at destinations looking beaten up or even broken. And one dog flown to her Wisconsin home for breeding disappeared for several hours when it was accidentally sent to Minneapolis instead of Milwaukee, Fogel says. She now refuses to fly into Los Angeles' LAX with dogs because of a mishap years ago with the top-ranked Bedlington terrier in the country.

"We don't know what exactly happened, but he was so shell-shocked that he slept for 17 hours straight the next day. I couldn't even show him," she said.

These days, Fogel sticks with Midwest Airlines because she believes the carrier exercises great care in handling her dogs. And due to a recent addition to the company's frequent-flier program, she earns extra miles and bonuses for traveling with her dogs.

Midwest is one of two airlines, along with United, to give frequent-flier benefits for animal travelers. The pet benefits were added early this year as airlines across the industry revamped their fare structure and frequent-flier programs amid an industry-wide earnings slump.

The Midwest program awards pets one free round-trip ticket for every three paid round-trip flights. Members of the Midwest Miles program can also cash in 15,000 miles in exchange for a free round-trip pet fare. United's program offers travelers 1,200 bonus miles when their pets travel with them.

Both programs went into effect in mid-January, and Fogel has already earned two round-trip pet tickets on Midwest, flying three dogs to a show in Denver and two to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York. Fogel said she no longer worries about their care, as Midwest pampers the dogs in heated rooms before boarding them onto planes and treats them to in-flight carob-chip doggie cookies emblazoned with the Midwest logo.

So much for the days of shell-shock. The dogs were comfortable enough on their New York trip that Fogel's Bedlington terrier, Clark, who like his superhero namesake goes by the stage name "Champion First Class Superman," won best in breed at Westminster.

"When I'm flying without the dogs it's less important. But I always try to fly Midwest if I'm going to a show," she said.

Pet airfares average about $150 for a round-trip ticket, so people like Fogel who frequently transport animals have the chance to save hundreds of dollars with the new benefits. Midwest charges $75 per travel stage to transport a pet, and United's fares range from $80 per stage to $200 per stage for animals in large kennels.

Frequent-flier benefits are one of the key tools airlines use to hold onto customers, and in many ways the competition in such programs has become just as heated as the traditional fare wars.

"It's becoming extremely important to them as a marketing tool," said Terry Trippler, a former travel agent and now chief executive officer of the airfare information Web site travelairfare.com. "Like the matching airfares, it's become a runaway train. Airlines are offering triple miles or things like that to promote a certain destination, or travel at a certain time of year."

Some airlines prefer not to handle animals -- Southwest Airlines doesn't allow pets on any flights -- and the pet program is thus far unique to Midwest and United. Midwest's program was conceived by fellow dog handler Susan Kerwin-Hagen, a marketing manager at the airline accustomed to dealing with many of the traveling headaches Fogel has faced.

After handling show dogs for more than 30 years, Kerwin-Hagen was eager to make sure the pets were treated properly in addition to earning mileage points for their owners.

"We take the time to train our people to handle pets and do things like talking to them to make sure they're feeling OK," she said.

The incentives are apparently working. Midwest saw the number of pet passengers jump 75 percent in the month after the program was announced. The total number of traveling pets is up 25 percent for the year, and Midwest hopes to double the 3,000 pet travelers it carried last year.

"We have a lot of passengers who want to travel with their pets, and good customers can have four legs, too," Kerwin-Hagen said.

United estimates that it carries about 150,000 pets per year, a group that has included such unusual passengers as two silverback gorillas and a beluga whale. A United spokesman said it's too early to tell if the frequent-flier program has enticed more passengers to fly with pets, but spokesman Robin Urbanski said the company is considering extending the offer beyond its original May 27 expiration.

"A lot of people really consider their pets a part of the family, and more and more people want to take the whole family along when they travel," he said.

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