When Bei Bei sets off for his 16-hour nonstop flight to China on Tuesday, he won’t have to abide any of the indignities most travelers face.
The 240-pound panda will have dedicated transportation from his home at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo; a forklift will move his travel crate to a FedEx truck, which will head to Dulles International Airport.
Once at the airport, there will be no crowds to navigate: The 4-year-old will travel directly from Virginia to Chengdu, China, on a private cargo jet with an entourage that includes his lifelong keeper and the National Zoo’s chief veterinarian. “The panda team will continuously monitor Bei Bei during the trip,” according to an announcement from the zoo.
Dubbed the “Panda Express” by FedEx, which donated the transportation and is operating the flight, the Boeing 777 Freighter is even decked out in panda-face decals. Talk about an ego boost.
Airline food? Not for this giant panda. Instead, his menu includes 66 pounds of bamboo, two bags of leafeater biscuits, two pounds of apples and pears, two pounds of cooked sweet potatoes and water.
The cargo area will be kept at a comfortable-for-panda temperature, between 60 and 65 degrees, a FedEx spokeswoman said. According to the zoo, cool-weather months are better for the creatures to travel.
As for his quarters, Bei Bei (pronounced Bay Bay) will avoid the scourge of basic economy. He is traveling in a steel-and-plexiglass transport container that FedEx provided. The zoo said it would probably be about 55 inches wide by 75 inches long and 50 inches tall; Bei Bei has been getting used to the crate (with the help of treats and training) leading up to the trip.
“He will be able to move, eat and play with his toys in complete comfort,” FedEx spokeswoman Rae Lyn Rushing said in an email. “The enclosure is constructed in a way to clean and maintain it as needed.”
The zoo’s panda experts were not available Monday to discuss what forms of in-flight entertainment would be available. But they have been asking for song submissions for a playlist, which the Smithsonian dubbed the #BeiBeiMixTape. Specially tailored suggestions included “Rock-A-Bye Bei Bei,” “I Got You Bei” by Sonny Bono, kind of, and the Vanilla Ice classic “Ice Ice Bei Bei.”
Bei Bei must leave his birthplace of Washington under an agreement with China, which owns the pandas in U.S. zoos. As part of a cooperative breeding program, pandas must move to China once they turn 4. Bei Bei’s older siblings Bao Bao and Tai Shan already made the same trip in 2017 and 2010, respectively. His parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will remain at the National Zoo.
Befitting any celebrity, the panda has spent his days before the journey partying with treats such as ice cake and being feted by admirers as part of a “Bye Bye Bei Bei” celebration. The most recent message from the National Zoo on Twitter read: “Hasta la vista, Bei Bei.”