Today marks the first flight for the new PetAirways, a "pets-only" airline that caters only to the four-legged traveler. While their red carpets and wagging tails may seem glamorous, a business model that rewards quantity over quality and discount over value may not fly in the long run with the most precious of cargo.
Working in the pet travel industry - and yes, you'd be surprised by how much of an industry it is - I've watched the buzz surrounding PetAirways with measured optimism. There's no arguing that the need exists. Pets are traveling more than ever - about 1.5 million animals are flown within the US each year -- and not just for holiday or weekend trips. The global marketplace has created employees who are bound overseas with their families, and the Labrador in the flannel suit is often packed up to go along. Due to antiquated myths about safety conditions, pet owners have always bristled at the thought of flying their pets as cargo . As a result, successful pet programs created by major airlines like Continental's PetSafe and KLM's Variation Live have tailored the act of safely shipping furry cargo, with dedicated customer support lines, climate-controlled vans to shuttle pets from planes and even pet hotels for layovers at main hubs.
These new standards have helped. According to the Department of Transportation incident reporting for live animals, which requires all US carriers to report accidents and losses, Continental had only seven deaths out of an estimate 220,000 pets shipped in 2008. All of those deaths were associated with a pet's pre-existing condition. English bull dogs, for example, tend to have various respiratory attacks when flying; Continental no longer will ship that breed.
Through commercial airlines' years of experience in servicing people they know how to - and how not to - service peoples' pets. PetAirways comes on the scene as a newcomer to both running an airline and moving pets - and while Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel, the owners of PetAirways, once tried to fly with their Jack Russell, flying with pets does not an expert airline operator make. A 2004 start-up called Companion Air faced a similar warm welcoming from pet owners and media, but never got off the ground.
PetAirways' revenue will hinge directly on filling private Beechcraft planes with as many pets possible for each trip. Their profits, too, will likely rely on flying as many pets at once as they can, just like their human airlines do with people. But when it comes to pets, most of the commercial airlines have restrictions on the number of pets they will accept on each flight. Safety, quality control and air quality are all of concern to airlines like Continental, which only allows a maximum of two pets in the cargo hold on their longer international flights.
Shipping pets has proved risky when done in large numbers at low prices. On Monday, as PetAirways struggled to keep up with phone calls and press inquiries, the Twittersphere exploded with a different kind of pet transport news. A Missouri truck driver was found with 51 puppies being transported in "deplorable conditions" while making deliveries to a pet store in Massachusetts. The truck driver was working on behalf of a company called Puppy Ship, one that specializes in the bulk, low-cost transportation of pets, frequently for puppy mills.
Options do exist for people wanting to travel with their pets, but aren't quite ready to trust PetAirways' budget fares. Individual pet transportation companies who specialize in servicing customer's exact travel schedules may charge a bit more, but also provide a more robust service. Door to door options, as well as flexible dates and routing, can make working with a pet transportation company that focuses on the needs of each individual pet more appealing. Most of these companies also operate under the watchful eye of the Independent Pet and Animal Transportation Association, or IPATA, which regulates ethics standards among its members.
PetAirways doesn't belong to IPATA yet. And, since they are not operating a cargo charter, they won't be subject to the Department of Transportation incident reporting for live animals. Because of this, it will be hard for consumers to know exactly what happens after the cargo doors close. Without these statistics, and reliable service conditions, pet owners might find that with this new niche airline, the proof ultimately is in the puppy chow.