Pet Airways pilot Casey Martin and staffer Terra Bruchert get a passenger ready for a flight out of BWI.
Six years ago, Baltimore native Meghan Moore-Rizzo put her cats, Kitty and Socks, on a flight from BWI to Los Angeles. They flew in cargo. When she picked them up at the LA airport, Socks was his frisky self. Something was wrong with Kitty.
“Kitty hid under the bed for two weeks,” Rizzo says. “She actually crawled into the lining of my box spring.”
This year, when Rizzo relocated from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, she was desperate for an alternative to having her cats fly cargo. After looking into pet taxis and considering driving, she discovered Pet Airways, an airline just for animals.
Pet Airways was founded in 2005 by Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel, a Florida couple who can identify all too well with Moore-Rizzo. A few years earlier, they had put their Jack Russell terrier, Zoe, on a six-hour flight from San Francisco to Florida. “When we got her, she was suddenly skittish and frightened,” says Binder. “She just wasn’t the same.”
Wiesel and Binder, who’d done consulting work for start-up companies, came up with a cabin-only option for pets, in the hopes of avoiding reactions like Zoe’s. The first flights flew out of BWI, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and New York. For the next few months, their charter planes with room for 35 to 50 pet carriers were booked solid.
On regular flights, pets fly in a plane’s cabin or in the cargo section. The Federal Aviation Administration allows animals in the cabin only if their carriers can fit under the seat. Some airlines don’t offer this option, and for people with larger pets, cargo is the only choice. But that section isn’t always properly ventilated. Last year, the Department of Transportation reported 39 pet deaths, 13 injuries, and five lost pets among ten airlines.
Flights on Pet Airways aren’t cheap. Delta charges $178 to $689 to fly a pet in cargo in the continental United States; a Pet Airways ticket can cost up to $500 more. Flights for dogs over 120 pounds, such as Akitas or Great Danes, can reach $1,200. For pets that weigh less than ten pounds, such as Maltese pups or Shih Tzus, prices can go up to $440. Moore-Rizzo was willing to pay more if it meant a safer ride for Kitty and Socks. Pet Airways asked her to fill out a health assessment from a vet so the flight crew would be aware of any medical concerns.
Once Kitty and Socks boarded in Los Angeles—Moore-Rizzo was meeting them in Baltimore—pet attendant Steve Hansen took his usual spot beside pilot Casey Martin. Hansen’s job is to go from carrier to carrier monitoring and comforting animals. He has endured scratches and bites but says the passengers are generally friendly. A Persian cat liked to stick his paw out of the carrier to give him high-fives. “People get jealous that I play with puppies and cats all day,” Hansen says.
Flights have at least one bathroom stop, and for Kitty and Socks it was the airport in Omaha. There, Hansen and other staffers walked, played with, and fed their passengers, getting them ready for the last leg of the trip. Hours later, while Kitty and Socks were unloaded into the lounge at BWI, an airport staffer handed Moore-Rizzo goody bags with treats and pet magazines. She was more interested in seeing her cats and inspects them both. Surprised to find Kitty looking mellow, she said: “I’m just glad she’s happy.”
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.