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Pet Airways: Only pets allowed

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When Zach, a nine-year-old, 60-pound Staffordshire Terrier, bounded off a Pet Airways plane in Los Angeles last September, he had a chew toy in his mouth and a spring in his step.

Zach was being reunited with Eileen Barber, his companion since he was a year old. Barber had been forced to give Zach up when she relocated from Williamsburg, Va., to San Diego and her new landlord -- at first -- would not allow pets. Fortunately for both owner and pet, the landlord eventually relented and Barber looked forward to bringing Zach - who had been living in a shelter -- to her new home.

But a 10-day roundtrip journey by car was out of the question, so Teri Parkhouse -- manager of Ring Dog Rescue, the shelter that had been caring for Zach -- looked into the possibility of flying him in the cargo hold of a commercial airline.

"Zach had been through a lot," Parkhouse said. We were concerned it would be too stressful for him to fly commercial". After much investigation, Parkhouse discovered Pet Airways, a Florida-based airline that describes itself as "a pet-only airline dedicated to pet-friendly travel."

Pet Airways takes wing

Founded by start-up business consultants Alysa Binder and husband Dan Wiesel, Pet Airways launched July 14 with weekly flights between the Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, and Baltimore/Philadelphia/Washington, D.C. areas -- cities with significant numbers of pet passengers. Binder, who now serves as Pet Airways' executive vice president, said she expects that the airline will serve 25 cities in the next couple of years.

Binder and Wiesel were inspired to found Pet Airways because of the trauma that their Jack Russell Terrier, Zoe, experienced while flying in the cargo hold of a flight from San Francisco to Del Ray Beach, Fla., when the couple relocated.

"Zoe was shook up by the flight across the country," Binder said. "Zoe had been a gregarious little dog, full of energy. But immediately after the flight, she just wasn't," Binder said.  This is when Binder and Wiesel knew they had to come up with an alternative solution for pet travel.

Pet Airways employs a fleet of 19 human-passenger, climate-controlled Beech 1900 turbo-prop planes especially refitted to accommodate up to 50 dogs and cats. The airline's "pawsengers" fly in secure carriers in comfortably maintained passenger cabins -- from which the seats and overhead bins have been removed -- rather than in cramped cargo holds.

Binder said her research showed that 76 million cats and dogs travel with their owners each year, but relatively few fly on airplanes. Only an estimated two million pets a year fly the nation's airways -- under seats, if they're small enough, or in cargo holds if they're not.

"This is not surprising considering the appalling conditions under which most pets must travel," Binder said. "Although many airlines allow small pets to travel with their owners, stowed under the seat, most airlines will accept only one or two pets per flight. Pets that are too big to fit under the seat are relegated to cargo, and unfortunately in many cases, are treated as such."

Why do people choose Pet Airways?

Binder cited five reasons people choose to fly their pets on Pet Airways:

1. Relocation
2. Vacation
3. Visiting relatives
4. Dog and cat shows
5. Pet rescue and adoption

She said that Pet Airways aims to be price-competitive with the human airlines. As with human flights, Pet Airways' ticket prices vary according to flight length and destination; in addition, the larger the pet, the higher the fare. For example, according to information on Pet Airways' website, two representative, mid-week round-trip fares were as follows: 1) $449 between New York and LA, for a dog weighing 51-75 lbs. and standing up to 21" in height; 2) $299 between Chicago and Denver for a cat weighing not more than 20 lbs. and standing up to 11" in height.

The flying experience

Pets must be dropped off at Pet Airways' airport lounge no later than two hours before take-off. Owners may, however, drop them off up to 72 hours before flying, in which case they will be boarded at the Airlines' "PAWS Lodge" until flight time.

Binder said that Pet Airways' passengers have a different sort of experience on her planes than on commercial airliners.

Pets fly in carriers supplied by the airline based on their size. The carriers are carefully secured to ensure the animals' comfort and safety. A "pet attendant"-- a veterinary technician -- monitors and checks on the dogs and cats on board every 15 minutes.

Pets are given regular "potty breaks" after disembarking. Binder emphasized that pets are never left unattended in a warehouse or on a ramp.

Throughout the duration of their pet's journey, pet owners can check on the status of their flight on Pet Airways' website.

Less stress

Binder said that Pet Airways' goal is to make flying pets as stress-free as possible, both for pets and pet parents. If the experience of Zach and his owner are typical, then the new airline is well on its way to accomplishing that goal.





Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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