By: Doug Gollan, ForbesLife
Upcoming seasonal delays (“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a line of thunderstorms across the entire Midwest and a ground stop at all New York-area airports”), combined with sweltering heat on the tarmac, often lead commercial airlines to restrict transport of pets. And while airlines point to a minimal number of pet casualties, for an owner, dogs and cats are often like family members, so the potential pitfalls can be scary. What’s more, there are increasing fees and limits to the number of pets that can be accommodated on a single flight.
Recently, I asked several private aviation companies and experts about policies for flying pets both with and without their owners. Keep in mind, when booking private jets, you aren’t always dealing with the actual operator of the plane. Charter brokers typically source planes from a network of operators who fly the aircraft, although operators will also market their own aircraft and source others on a charter basis as needed.
A spokesperson for XOJET was more excited about flying pets than unaccompanied children (more on that in a future story), noting, “We definitely go above and beyond to ensure our furry friends are well taken care of.”
The company, which operates its own fleet in addition to sourcing third-party jets from a partner network, has both rules and recommendations when it comes to pets. One reminder is to make sure Fido has proper vaccinations and customs documentation relevant to the passenger’s destination (Hawaii, for example, has strict quarantine restrictions). As with humans, safety comes first: “The main (rule) is that they are on a leash at all times to and from the aircraft, on the ground, and in the air,” the representative says, adding, “All large pets must occupy a seat and cannot block the aisles or emergency exits.”
The safest way for a dog to fly is with a body harness, not a neck collar, states the official. Small dogs and cats should be in a carrier that is also affixed to a seat belt during takeoff and landing and does not block the aisle. Large pets are counted as passengers due to their weight.
Carol Martin, founder of airPA, a company of flight attendants specializing in flying pets privately, recommends pet owners purchase top-of-the-line harnesses for their animals. Martin mentions the brand Ruffwear specifically. She says that while there are not any certified tests of pet harnesses for airplanes, she evaluates them based on automobile usage. “There’s no sense strapping in your pet, and then having it slip or choke.”
In terms of pets traveling alone, XOJET says clients can request to have their pets flown alone, and then a cabin attendant must accompany the pet. NetJets, a unit of Berkshire Hathaway that operates fractionally owned jets and sells prepaid cards granting access to its planes, requires that for takeoff and landing pets be in a carrier and stowed in an internal baggage area or be secured in their own seat. Pets may not occupy the same seat as a passenger. Further, multiple animals may be secured in unoccupied passenger seats provided their combined weight does not exceed 150 pounds. Like on XOJET, animals secured on the floor may not obstruct any aisle or exit or access to any aisle or exit. Wheels Up, which offers private air travel via a membership system, “doesn’t have stringent rules for flying pets except that they must not be aggressive or able to interfere with the pilots command of the plane,” says COO David Kaufman. He adds, “So dogs generally (need to be) on leashes, birds in cages, cats in cage during take-off and landing,” noting that being able to fly pets is “very often a reason people choose to fly Wheels Up.”
Ricky Sitomer, CEO of Blue Star Jets, a broker that doesn’t operate any aircraft, says, “We work for the client…so we go and find an aircraft that will take the pet and give the customer the various options.” Clearly outlining who or what will be traveling when making a booking is critical. He notes that restrictions can extend beyond operators to the owners of each aircraft. “Maybe no pets. Maybe no red wine. Maybe no smoking,” he elaborates. Carol Cork, co-founder and sales & marketing director of PrivateFly, another broker, says, “Most private jets allow domestic pets on board, [however] the owner may on occasion ask for the aircraft to be cleaned afterwards.” Clive Jackson, CEO and founder of Victor, which also sources aircraft from operators, says that it builds profiles for customers, including pet travel, so that it only gives options with pet friendly providers. Pets and pet preferences are included in the manifests provided to the aircraft operator. Martin agrees that it is critical to make sure the operator knows you will be traveling with pets, the type, and how many, so there is no chance of confusion on departure day.
As part of her service, Martin also brings pet oxygen masks and life vests, “so that they have all of the resources a human would.” She and her colleagues are Red Cross-certified in pet first aid, and she has had the opportunity to use her training, performing the Heimlich maneuver on a dog that was choking in flight.
According to Martin, the size of an aircraft is not important, but there are a number of pre-flight steps owners can take to make their pet’s trip happier. If the pet is going to fly unaccompanied, she recommends getting the pet acclimated to its crate in the weeks leading up to the trip. Place the crate at home in a location the pet normally hangs out, putting in favorite blankets and toys. Martin also advises not to worry about your pet drinking or eating on the plane, as pets can fly domestic-length flights without fear of dehydration. She does recommend a light meal and normal walking routine prior to the trip. As pets get excited by flying, she shares a tip to keep them calm: Provide the crew favorite music to pipe in the cabin, or send along an iPod with speakers that can be set up near your pet.
Typically Martin travels with the pet owners, “so they can enjoy the flight without worrying their pet is going to tear up the plane.” In addition to more traditional pets, she’s flown with ferrets, snakes, spiders, falcons, and goats. Her company operates on the same daily fee structure as contract flight attendants, which is $500 for domestic and $600 for international, plus expenses.
On the fun side, Martin puts together a specialized pet amenity kit with toys and treats and serves her pet passengers meals designed to look like human eats. “Everyone has a laugh,” she says, noting that all her company’s flight attendants also have culinary training related to pet palates.
Once you’ve worked out the logistics, Fido is going to be one happy and lucky dog. The XOJET spokesperson adds, “Rules aside, our onboard service is well tailored to our four-legged flyers, including blankets and dog treats.” As one last tip, Martin recommends a tablet filled with episodes of Meerkat Manor. “I’ve honestly never met a dog that isn’t entertained for hours by watching a bunch of meerkats run around,” she says.