Thu, Jul 16, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Move over jet set — here comes the ‘pet set’

A new US airline designed exclusively for pets takes to the skies this week

By Gabriele Chwallek  /  DPA , WASHINGTON

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Pet Airways, a new US airline for dogs and cats, took off on its maiden flight on Tuesday from New York. It was to make stops in Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.

Pet Airways will fly strictly pets — initially only dogs and cats — and is completely booked for the next two to three months, airline spokeswoman Aly Tognotti said.

The only people on board will be the pilot and a flight attendant who will be dedicated exclusively to the comfort of the precious freight. Better stated, the precious passengers. That’s because Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel from Delray, Florida, who founded the airline, consider the description “freight” unacceptable for their four-legged guests.

They decided to start the airline because they felt animals often suffer when traveling and are typically treated like pieces of luggage.

Not all airlines accept house pets on board, and those that do usually put them in the cargo hold in the belly of the plane, where it can get hot or very cold. The only animals allowed in the cabin have to be small enough to fit in a cage that can be stored under the seat.

Pet Airways has started small. Initially, the airline will fly pets in a converted Beech 1900, secured in their own cages placed on fitted shelves instead of the rows of seats in standard passenger airplane.

The airline, which claims to be the first in the world dedicated to transporting pets, is operated by Suburban Air, which has a reputation for being experienced and dependable and is one of the few allowed to transport certain radioactive materials. Normally, the propeller planes seat 19 passengers. As Pet Airways planes, they will offer space for up to 50 cages for cats and dogs.

Pet Airways will fly once a week, and initially the destinations will be New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles.

A one-way ticket starts at US$149. Once the airline establishes itself, more cities will be added and up to 20 planes will be put into service. Over the next two years, the airline has plans to expand services to 25 cities, given the “enormous interest from pet owners,” spokeswoman Tognotti said. Binder is confident that the airline will reach that level.

That’s no surprise in a country where there are 90 million cats, 73 million dogs, 16 million birds and 22 million reptiles as pets, according to a survey conducted by an association for the makers of animal products.

Annually, an estimated 70 million dogs and cats travel with their owners on vacation, mostly in cars, Pet Airways says, quoting statistics compiled by an association of US veterinary clinics. The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says of the 2 million animals that fly annually in airline freight cargo holds about 5,000 are injured.

This is not likely to happen at Pet Airways, which lists the US’ largest Internet pet pharmacy as one of its partners. Binder and Wiesel promise that their guests will be offered the same careful handling and stress-free travel they would want for their own dog, Zoe. A trip the terrier made gave Binder and Wiesel the idea for starting the airline.

“She once had to fly and arrived totally distressed, and planning vacations was often complicated. So we started thinking and Pet Airways was born,” said Binder.

Owners will have peace of mind, the founders say, when they check their animals in at an animal lounge up to 72 hours — but no less than two hours — before the flight. During the flight, the attendant will check the animals every 15 minutes.

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