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The fur flies -- in comfort -- on Pet Airways

Forget the cargo hold, dogs and cats ride in the main cabin on this animal-only start-up airline serving five cities from Los Angeles to New York.

July 21, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

BROOMFIELD, COLO. — The nation's newest start-up airline doesn't serve free peanuts, and there's no restroom -- or seats -- for the passengers.

But flight attendants do escort passengers personally to the nearest patch of grass before and after the flight, and the airline's president and chief executive himself walks up the aisle every 15 minutes with a stash of biscuits and some words of comfort.

"You're going to see your mommy soon," Dan Wiesel cooed to one Labrador retriever shortly after Pet Airways Flight 1101 rolled to a stop on the tarmac at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, about 15 miles northwest of Denver.

The pet-only airline launched its inaugural flights last week to much fanfare among animal lovers who share Wiesel's distaste for sending a cherished pet into the underbelly of a jetliner.

"The cargo hold is scary, dark, unattended," Wiesel said. He conceived of the pet-centric business after placing his Jack Russell terrier on a cross-country flight several years ago: "I was so stressed out."

Pet Airways touts itself as the antidote to standard air travel: Cats and dogs ride in the air-conditioned main cabin of a Beech 1900 turboprop, a 19-passenger plane refitted with kennels to carry up to 50 animals, under the care of a veterinary technician ready to dole out reassurances or treats.

"This is not baggage going down a chute, going to a wrong destination because someone put on the wrong bar code," Wiesel said.

This may not be the best time for a start-up business. But Wiesel and his wife and partner, Alysa Binder -- both of whom previously did consulting and recruiting work for high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley -- think they have found their niche.

They say their flights are booked solid for the next two months. Wiesel declined to discuss how they financed the venture.

The fares, which start at $150 for a one-way trip and depend on the size of the animal and the length of the journey, are comparable to major U.S. airlines' fees for pets.

Flights follow a set route, beginning in New York, then traveling to Baltimore/Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Denver; and ending in Los Angeles. The following day, the plane makes the same trip in reverse.

Such services may be the inevitable next step in the pet-care industry; Americans will spend an estimated $45.4 billion in 2009 on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Assn.

"We're starting to see a major shift in the way pets are perceived and treated," said Adam Goldfarb, director of the Humane Society of the United States' pets-at-risk program.

Such a venture might not have gained much traction a few decades earlier, he said.

"But now, it's not enough for our animals to be well-cared-for. There's a major shift from care being only adequate to care being really exceptional."

The airline's burgeoning popularity also may reflect fears that travelers have of losing a pet onboard.

Though horror stories abound, U.S. Department of Transportation statistics reflect relatively few incidents.

Although transportation officials said they could not provide statistics on the number of animals transported each year, the figure is estimated at upward of 1 million.

In 2008, U.S. airlines reported 30 deaths, 10 injuries and three lost animals, according to incident reports.

Many of the animals that died were short-nosed dogs, such as pugs or bulldogs, that have difficulty breathing and staying cool in warm temperatures.

In one case, an agitated dog tore metal pieces from its kennel, puncturing itself and escaping before it collapsed and died. In another, a dog bolted when an employee opened its kennel to take it for a walk.

Pet Airways officials say they will be more successful in avoiding such incidents, partly because their staff is experienced in handling animals.

The concept seems to have merit, said Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, assistant professor at Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Travel is safer in a cabin; if the plane undergoes a change in pressure, the cabin will be pressurized, while the hold may not. Temperature also is more consistent in the cabin.

When Pet Airways landed last week in Colorado on the fourth leg of its cross-country journey, the dogs yipped and whined but seemed more curious than upset as attendants hoisted their crates off the plane, then took them on leashed tours alongside the tarmac.

"We're going to go potty," crooned attendant Kelly Bates to one energetic Labrador.

Inside the airport pet lounge, where issues of Cat Fancy decorated the coffee table, other dogs thumped their tails.

One cat, Chickpea, sat placidly in her carrier while Bates delivered a fresh pan of litter.

Maddie, a sleek black lab, dozed on her blanket, but when her owner arrived, her tail started pounding wildly.

"She did really well on the flight," attendant Dawn Rankin told owner Cynthia Martindale, 37, of Longmont, Colo. "She slept most of the way."

Martindale nodded and smiled at her dog, whom she last saw in Baltimore, where she and her family dropped off Maddie before returning to Colorado.

They may have avoided navigating the crowds at Denver International Airport, but the family could not escape at least one echo of the quintessential airport experience:

"I just need to see some ID," Rankin said.

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