Pet jet-setters: Owners pay to have their pets in the cabin with them rather than in cargo with luggage

pets in the cabin
Maggie Davies

More than 20,000 pets fly in and out of Australia each year. Most of them are cats and dogs joining owners who are returning home from overseas or relocating for work or family.

If you want to take your pet in or out of Australia, chances are it will have to travel in a crate with hundreds of pieces of luggage, in the cargo hold of a commercial aircraft.

But an Australian-based, international pet travel company is now offering clients the opportunity to have pets travel by their side in the cabin of a charter jet. For a price.

The first flights between the UK, Australia and back again, earlier this month, were on a Gulfstream jet, and tickets cost between $15,000 (for an unaccompanied pet) to $40,000 (for a person travelling with a pet).

Bird’s eye view for cats and dogs

Skye Pet Travel founder Joanna Maddison said she hoped that in the future she would be able to offer cheaper fares on bigger planes that could take more passengers – of both the human and animal kind.

“There’s no denying it’s an expensive service, that’s just the reality of charter aircraft. But I really want to make it an affordable service for people,” she said.

The maiden flights carried in total 19 human passengers, one cat and 23 dogs. All of the animals had to be securely restrained during take-off and landing and a special toileting area was set up at the back of the plane.

“All the dogs got on so well, we had no issues, it couldn’t have gone any better,” Ms Maddison said.

Penny Forshaw, her dog Indy and her cat Ruby, were onboard the Melbourne-to-London leg, after which they were catching a flight to New York on another pet-friendly airline, K9 Jets.

She said the $40,000 price tag for the London leg on Skye Pet Travel was worth it so she could take her beloved pets with her as she relocated for her dream job.

“I don’t have children. My animals are the equivalent of human babies for me,” she said.

‘Cargo sends shivers up my spine’

“Ultimately it is a lot of money, but I would never forgive myself if anything happened to my girls, they are my world. It was a no-brainer for me.

“The thought of putting them in cargo sends shivers up my spine.

“I just really wanted an option where they could actually be with me in the cabin.

“I think Australia is probably one of the most challenging places to get pets in and out of, whereas in Europe and the US, it seems more common there that people fly in the cabin with their pets.”

Searching high and low

Ms Maddison started the business after she and her husband wanted to return to the UK, where they are originally from.

They wanted to take Skye, Jazz and Roux, the three beloved huskies they adopted while living in Perth.

“I was just really against sending them in cargo,” she said.

“I just couldn’t bear the thought of them being stressed and the anxiety that would cause them.”

After searching for other transport options including boats, trains and even a private jet, Ms Maddison and her husband gave up on relocating and decided to stay in Australia for the duration of their dogs’ lives.

“You’re talking about upwards of half a million dollars for that journey (to hire a private jet on your own), so it just wasn’t feasible.”

Realising that other people would be in the same situation, she decided to set up a service in which customers could travel overseas with their pets beside them in the aircraft cabin.

Most airlines flying in and out of Australia do not allow pets in the cabin. There are some exceptions for service animals, and some airlines will allow smaller pets if they can be contained in a crate under foot.

Risk and reward

There are comprehensive animal welfare guidelines for pets travelling in cargo and the vast majority of pets tolerate this air travel without incident.

But it can be stressful, and occasionally animals become seriously unwell or die (and in rare cases have escaped and been lost).

Brachycephalic breeds, otherwise known as flat or snub-nosed breeds, are more prone to complications.

Australia doesn’t keep records of animals that die during airline travel but United States statistics show that of the small number of animals that do perish during flights, a disproportionate number are snub-nosed breeds.

Sarah Zito, a veterinarian and senior scientific officer for companion animals with the RSPCA, said any brachycephalic breeds, including British bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, Boston terriers, Pekingese, Himalayan and Persian cats, were at greater risk.

Dr Zito said these animals could suffer from breathing problems, which made them not only more susceptible to heat stress but also reduced their ability to handle stress. For this reason, some airlines do not allow these breeds onboard, or restrict them if stopover destinations have high temperatures.

Dr Zito said animals with underlying health issues could also be at higher risk.

The risk was ‘just too high’

After 12 years in New York, Elle Bailey wanted to return home to Australia with her French bulldog, Bella, who has some complex health issues.

It’s much harder to bring pets into Australia than to fly them out because Australia has some of the strictest biosecurity regulations and quarantine requirements in the world. These requirements differ depending on which country you are bringing your pet from.

“Once I explored the typical route of importing dogs in the cargo hold I knew this option was just too high risk for Bella,” Ms Bailey said.

So when she heard about the special pet flight from the UK to Australia, Ms Bailey was determined to join that flight and have Bella with her in the cabin on the long haul to Australia. On touchdown in Melbourne, the flight was met by biosecurity officials who transported the newly arrived pets to the quarantine facility to serve their mandatory quarantine time.

‘These are my children’

When Holly and her partner Stuart, who don’t want to use their last names for privacy reasons, wanted to fly to the UK for a connecting flight to the US with their snub-nosed fur babies, Ms Maddison’s pet jet was the safest option available.

So the family of five – Holly, Stuart, their pug Lilly and twin Brussels Griffon puppies, Sofia and Hugo – booked their flight with Skye Pet Travel.

You can’t put a price on safety, but in Holly and Stuart’s case it cost $80,000 for the flight.

They also offered to pay a shortfall of around $97,000 if all seats weren’t filled. Holly said she had struggled with mental health challenges, and her fur babies were critical to her wellbeing.

“They haven’t left my side ever since I’ve gotten sick. These are my children,” she said. Holly said the prospect of the dogs travelling in cargo or being separated from her and Stuart just wasn’t an option.

“I’ve been trying to get home for more than two years and this is the only way I could do it safely,” she said.

“My anxiety has crippled me for this journey and (putting the dogs in the cargo hold) would have made it even worse.”

It’s already an expensive business shipping pets around the world via cargo.

With airline fares, veterinary fees, agent fees, documentation, special travel crates and quarantine boarding, it can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for a pet to travel between the US or Europe and Australia.

Safeguards in place

Pet travel consultancies that facilitate this travel on a daily basis say it’s safe, well organised and well regulated.

Tom Brown from Aeropets said animal wellbeing when travelling in the cargo hold was paramount and many safeguards were in place, including that pets had access to water, were put on planes last, unloaded first and kept in temperature-controlled environments.

“If ground temperature exceeds a certain limit, animals will not be permitted for loading,” he said.

“Another safeguard is the requirement of a final veterinary assessment, where an Australian vet deems the animal in question to be in fit and sound condition for transport.”

Dr Zito said there were also measures owners could take, including rewards-based training to acclimatise pets to their travel crates, ensuring pets are healthy and not booking travel during hot times of the year.

She said while there were international guidelines governing animal welfare on flights, and while most pets were able to travel safely in cargo, she understood why owners were concerned.

“A better understanding of animals’ experience during air travel could help make travel safer and less stressful for animals and assist people to make informed decisions about what is best for their beloved companions,” she said.

Above and beyond

As more and more people travel around the world with their pets, Skye Pet Travel isn’t the only company trying to meet the demand.

UK company K9Jets specialises in the shorter, cheaper, less challenging transatlantic flights between Europe and the US. Founder Adam Golder said pet owners were keen to have their pets in the cabin with them on planes. “We are getting requests every day to put on new flights to new destinations further afield.”

Ms Maddison said she had to overcome some major hurdles before the first flights could begin, including changes to Australia’s biosecurity and quarantine regulations, which delayed many pet owners’ plans to bring pets into the country.

As a result, Ms Maddison said she offered a smaller flight than she had planned. Now, she’s hoping to scale up.

“A wide-bodied aircraft that could fit, for example, 40 passengers and 30-40 pets on board, to make tickets more affordable,” she said.

“My ultimate dream is to be able to have an aircraft that’s fully fitted-out especially for this service,” she said.

(Article source: ABC News)

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