Pet Airways tries for 'a better way'

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 11:14 AM

As I drove Red the Doberman to Baltimore for his flight to New York, my mind was on some other canines: those poor puppies in Chicago. This August, seven of them who had flown in the cargo hold died after their American Airlines flight from Tulsa got delayed and the plane apparently sat too long on the tarmac. According to the airline's own policy, the day was too hot to fly pets, but American accepted them from a shipper anyway.

Such stories make headlines periodically, which is why I have never considered flying a pet: not my 6-year-old rescue dog, Red; not his goofy predecessor, Gromit; certainly not one of the many cats I've owned over the years. Not until now, that is.

Red and I were trying out Pet Airways, which, as its name indicates, is dedicated to animals. Since it started in 2009, the airline has flown 5,000 pets, a fraction of the estimated 2 million live animals that fly every year on commercial airlines. But it is trying to set a higher standard: no cargo hold, no tarmac delays and, in fact, no human passengers.

Red would be flying on the Beechcraft 1900 twin turboprop without me. Pet Airways makes room for up to 50 "pawsengers" per flight, but we "pet parents" (these are the airlines' terms, not mine) have to find our own transportation. While Red would be winging it from BWI Marshall to MacArthur Airport on Long Island, at a fare of $99 one way, I would be driving.

Unless you have a dog small enough to fit in a carrier under the airplane seat in front of you, flying a pooch is inevitably going to involve some separation anxiety, and Pet Airways is no exception. I had pored over the Web site's encyclopedic FAQs, and an airline staff member had called me days earlier to go over procedures: health certificate, accurate measurement (for crate selection purposes), discussion of Red's demeanor and crate training. But still. As we exited the car at the cargo building, I was nervous: Was I putting my gentleman of a dog at risk?

Pet Airways didn't know I was a journalist working on a story until later, but the staff inside the "pet lounge," brightly decorated with paintings and photos of dogs and cats, put us both at ease, although my dog didn't really need much calming. Lounge manager Denise Rocks immediately asked, "Is this Red?" and reached out to scratch him. Pilot Casey Martin called out, "Hey, buddy!" from behind the counter. Rocks took the leash while I filled out paperwork and led him around so he could sniff, sniff and sniff some more.

Separation anxiety? It was all mine. Red paused to look at me quizzically when I turned to go, then went back to sniffing.

Sobering statistics

Is flying a pet in cargo dangerous?

Since May 2005, the Department of Transportation has collected monthly data from airlines on pet incidents. Through August 2010, the total was 154 pets who died, 63 injured and 38 lost. (That last number makes it difficult for anyone to argue that animals aren't being treated like luggage.)

Continental has had the most deaths, at 44, followed by American (33), Delta (22), Alaska (19) and United (16). Those numbers might sound minuscule given the millions of animals that fly every year, but in fact the DOT figures include only pets, while that 2-million-a-year figure is from the Department of Agriculture and includes many non-pets. The airlines don't have to report how many pets they fly every year.

Some say that the airlines have gotten somewhat of a bad rap and that the situation is improving. All large jets have pressurized and climate-controlled cargo areas, says Rachel Farris, PR director for, so it's more important how they handle the pets when they're not on the plane. She praises Continental's PetSafe program, which among other things promises that pets are held in climate-controlled cargo offices and transported to planes in climate-controlled vehicles. Even though Continental has had the most deaths since the DOT started tracking the figures, the airline says that's simply because it flies so many animals: about 110,000 a year. "The animals are cared for at every point by trained ground personnel and handled with extreme care," said Continental spokeswoman Christen David.

Some airlines won't allow pets to fly in cargo during warmer months or when the temperature exceeds certain limits. Continental, for one, prohibits adult English bulldogs and other snub-nosed breeds from flying mid-May to mid-September. These breeds' breathing difficulties make them more susceptible to medical problems from stress and lack of ventilation on flights, and they have accounted for about half of the canine deaths, according to the DOT.

Farris and others stress the need for dogs to have a thorough veterinary exam before flying, especially if they are older, and be trained to be comfortable in a crate. "If people approached air travel the way they approach major surgery - is your pet healthy enough to fly, young enough to fly? - pets would fly a lot more safely," said Farris.

Pet Airways, meanwhile, echoes what groups such as the Humane Society and PETA, along with the Web site, say: If your pet is too big to fly in the passenger section of a plane with you, resist resorting to cargo.

For one thing, even if the pet has been handled well up to that point, when the cargo door closes, unlike on Pet Airways, no humans can monitor the animals for the duration of the flight. "It's good luck, Buffy," said Betsy Saul, founder of "You're putting your pet in a dangerous situation, unsupervised."

Saul's site studies the pet-friendliness of airlines every year and announces its favorites. Last year, before Pet Airways had really gotten off the ground, the top honor went to Continental for its PetSafe program. This year, the fledgling airline won the top spot, while JetBlue was also singled out for its refusal to accept animals in cargo. While she acknowledges that airlines have made "huge strides," Saul added: "It's pretty cut and dried. No airline that still allows pets in cargo doesn't have deaths. Shipping them in cargo is frankly inconsistent with being assured of your pet's survival."

If cargo is the only option and you can't drive, Saul said, maybe you should reconsider taking your pet in the first place. "I'm sure your pet would love to be with you," she said, "but there are probably a lot of other people your pet would be happy to be with, too."

Pet Airways co-founder Alysa Binder puts it another way: "I wouldn't put a human family member down there," she said. "Why would I do that to my pet?"

'A better way'

Pet Airways was born when Binder and her husband, Dan Wiesel, high-tech consultants, were moving from San Francisco to Florida and decided, "with some trepidation," to fly their Jack Russell terrier, Zoe, in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner.

"When she got out on the other end, she just wasn't the same," Binder said in a phone interview. "She was very skittish." After a while, Zoe returned to normal, "But we thought, there just has to be a better way."

They started the company in 2005, but Pet Airways didn't fly until 2009. It took that long to work out all the details: which airports to fly out of, what planes to use and how to design them, not to mention navigating the maze of regulations. "Since we're the first to do this, the reactions ranged from 'Hmm, interesting' to 'It's about time' to 'What are you, crazy?'" Binder said. "It was a long process because we weren't just going to build it to build it. It had to be about safety, comfort and care, with safety first."

Pet Airways subcontracted with Suburban Air Freight Inc., which has retrofitted four planes according to Wiesel's specifications, and started with smaller airports near five cities: Baltimore-Washington, New York, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. "We wanted to make sure we could bring the planes in really close, load them quickly, taxi quickly, and get up in the air quickly," she said.

In the airline's second year, it has added four more cities. Binder wouldn't disclose occupancy rates but said the flights have been "mostly booked," so much so that the company is continuing to expand. She wouldn't give details but said the airline is on track to eventually serve locations "within two hours of every major city in the United States."

All of the employees have experience working with pets, Binder said, such as in veterinary offices or boarding facilities. "They have to love animals," she said.

That was apparent when, a week after Red's flight, I asked to see behind the scenes as a Pet Airways flight landed at BWI on a crisp, sunny Wednesday morning. The plane had started in Los Angeles, stopped at several points on its way east, and was pausing at BWI before heading to Fort Lauderdale.

Rocks, the lounge manager, oversaw three attendants who took a van the mere 400 feet from the hangar to the little plane, met pilot Martin, in-flight attendant Hansen and trainee Richard Lopez, and started unstrapping the crates and moving the 19 pets from plane to van. A border collie named Maggie was itching to get out: She barked incessantly, and attendant Jessica Placchi said, "Where's your toy, Maggie! Get your toy!" Maggie grabbed a lime-green stuffed animal and started tossing it in the air. "It says here that you're shy," Placchi said, reading the note attached to Maggie's crate, with her weight, destination and personality comments. "I don't think so."

They made two trips to line up the 19 crates in the hangar, then started going over the pets' notes to see if any needed medication. The attendants started taking the dogs out to feed, water and walk them and, in the case of six who weren't going on to Florida, prepare them to be picked up. They made sure each had their "luggage," a gallon-sized plastic bag that owners could fill with treats, food, etc., as well as the T-shirt or pillowcase many owners had left so their scent could be put into the crate with their pet.

When Maggie continued to bark, Rocks quickly kneeled in front of the crate and stuck her fingers in, letting Maggie sniff and lick and nuzzle. The dog immediately quieted down.

Owners started trickling in. Dave Vladic, 40, was picking up spaniels Coco and Vin because he's moving from Arizona to Virginia. Pet Airways staff say they even have some shared-custody pets, who fly back and forth to visit divorced parents.

Quinn Emmett, 28, lives in Los Angeles but had just driven to Baltimore from his home town of Williamsburg, where he was preparing for his wedding. "We just couldn't do it without the little guy." By that, he meant Teddy, his year-old rescue pup who he figures is "probably some sort of cockapoo."

"We like to think of him as a unicorn," Emmett said. "A special guy. He was found in an abandoned box, in an abandoned house, with his dead brothers and sisters. We had to take him. Named after Ted Williams."

His other dog, a schnoodle, flew with his fiancee in the passenger cabin of JetBlue, but both dogs will return on Pet Airways because "we're going on our honeymoon in St. Bart's, and the dogs aren't coming."

Would he ever fly a dog in the cargo hold of a commercial airline? "Nope," he said. "I could never put these guys through that."

Back to earth

A week earlier, I was in Emmett's shoes, driving to pick up Red on Long Island, but this time it was a windy, rainy day. I kept checking the back seat expecting to see him stretched out, buckled in with his safety harness. As my car was buffeted on bridges and the like, I imagined Red and his fellow pawsengers in their crates strapped to the interior of the turboprop. Pet Airways says Sub Air has an excellent safety record, but I know how I feel on a small plane, especially when it's bouncing through a storm.

At 8:10 p.m., my cellphone rang. "Hi, this is Michael from Pet Airways," he said. "I just wanted to let you know that Red has landed safely and can be picked up at any time." I was only 15 minutes away, and Michael gave me better-than-Google-Maps directions right to the pet lounge, in an outlying building apart from the main airport terminal.

Inside, in-flight attendant Hansen was walking Red around. No other dogs were in sight. My boy wasn't merely safe, he was excited to see me and full of energy. If there had been motion-sickness-inducing turbulence or other stress on board, Red certainly didn't show any signs. (The pilot told me later that he was able to easily fly above the storms, and that everything was smooth.)

"He's awesome," Hansen said about Red. "Really great dog." I appreciated that the staff asked me for an ID so they could make sure I was indeed authorized to pick him up: No chance of this dog being "lost" like just another suitcase.

Nothing alleviates a little separation anxiety like a reunion. I let Red roam around the parking lot for a few minutes, then he resumed his rightful place in the back seat of the car.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company