Forget business class or commercial, these pets are flying on private jets

File photo: For travellers with pets, the options for long-distance hauls are limited and often stressful for both species. Picture: REUTERS/Larry Downing

File photo: For travellers with pets, the options for long-distance hauls are limited and often stressful for both species. Picture: REUTERS/Larry Downing

Published Mar 8, 2023


By Andrea Sachs

On a charter flight from Dublin to New Jersey last July, the passenger manifest resembled the attendance sheet at an obedience class.

There was a Labrador retriever, a Leonberger, a cavalier King Charles spaniel, a cavapoochon, a French bulldog, a wheaten terrier and two vizslas.

Also on the list: several humans toting dog blankets and puppy pads for the red-eye journey.

“If I sent the wheaten terrier the traditional way, he would’ve had a heart attack,” said Jennifer Kirkham, whose two dogs, Fenway the terrier and Dublin the bulldog, flew on the private transport. “They’re better travellers than most kids.”

For travellers with pets, the options for long-distance hauls are limited and often stressful for both species.

Commercial airlines place tight restrictions on airborne animals, especially ones that are too large for the cabin and must fly in the cargo hold or as freight.

Owners pay hundreds of dollars to transport their pets by plane, plus more if their supersize dog requires a customised crate.

For example, to fly her dogs from Germany to the States last year, Jamie Klepper contacted several pet shipping companies for prices.

The lowest quotes she received were $12 000 (about R220 000) for Lenny, her 16-month-old Leonberger, and $5 000 for Bailey, her “exceptionally tall” golden retriever.

Passengers with brachycephalic dogs contend with even fewer choices because of a widespread ban on snub-nosed canines, which are prone to breathing issues.

Adding to the anxiety: on occasion, airlines deliver animals to the wrong address. In December, British Airways flew Bluebell, a lab mix, from London to Saudi Arabia instead of Nashville.

Some animals fall ill or worse. Bailey, the Lab, suffered bloat, or a twisted stomach, soon after landing at JFK airport.

She survived, but not all do. According to Transportation Department statistics, 11 animals died on US commercial carriers in 2019 and six in 2020.

The charter air industry, which flourished during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, offers pet owners greater latitude and peace of mind than commercial air. All animals, regardless of size or breed, fly with their people in the cabin.

Dogs can lounge like coddled rock stars in the leather seats, stretch out on the floor or curl up in their owners’ laps. Cats must be crated because, well, they’re cats.

“People are trying to avoid their pets going through an emotional experience,” said Adam Golder, whose private jet charter company, G6 Aviation, flew more than 100 dogs across the Atlantic last year. “It’s the most stress-free way to travel with your pet.”

This sector of air travel is often associated with exclusivity.

However, a charter plane for pets has more in common with a school carpool than Kim Air, the second-eldest Kardashian’s gilded chariot (Kylie has one, too).

The main privilege for the passengers, many of whom are relocating abroad or repatriating to the US, is the ability to accompany their four-legged companions.

“You might think it’s all rich people wanting to fly with their dogs, but some of them are going through divorces or have health issues or a family reason or a senior dog,” said Kirkham, whose dogs and two teenage daughters moved to Connecticut after several years in London and Dublin. “You almost become a psychologist or a friend trying to pull this together.”

To organise a group charter for a small menagerie, one passenger takes the lead.

Kirkham was the volunteer organiser for her journey.

One of her biggest responsibilities was securing an aircraft that would allow as many pets as it would people, which is not the norm: many private planes will cap the number of pets and not mix dogs from different families.

She also had to recruit enough travellers to cover the $155 000 price tag (each person paid just under $8 600) and devise a seating chart like a wedding planner with potentially disruptive guests.

“You don’t put the one-year-old puppy next to the grumpy senior,” Kirkham said.

Kirkham connected with kindred travellers on Chartered Air Travel With Pets, a Facebook group founded by Katy Prochaska in January 2021.

The retired Californian created the platform after the pandemic foiled her plans to sail her four dogs on the Queen Mary 2 and fly her two cats to London.

“We were the pioneering group,” said Prochaska, who lives in Porto, Portugal. “Suddenly, chartering a plane became not a cheap option but a possible option.”

In just over two years, the group has ballooned to almost 30 000 members. Prochaska said the most requested routes are between the US and Europe, but the map was expanding – to the United Arab Emirates and Thailand.

“We have about 20 flights in the planning stage,” said Prochaska, whose long-term goal is to awaken commercial air to the possibilities of pet travel. “They could charge $1 000 per animal and have a pet-friendly flight once a month,” she proposed.

Golder, a private pilot in England, and his wife and business partner, Kirsty, are taking a small but significant step in that direction with his newest venture, K9 Jets.

The pet-forward charter company will take care of all the heavy lifting. Passengers will need to submit their details, such as the animal’s breed and temperament, then choose one of the scheduled monthly or bimonthly flights and pay for their seat.

Since unveiling the site in early January, more than 3 000 people have expressed interest in booking passage between New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport and London, Lisbon or Paris.

“We will have the leisure market as well. Canary Islands, Greece – that’s really where we see the expansion going,” Golder said. “Rather than people using the service just for relocation, it will be more from a leisure perspective.”

Golder had planned to open reservations last month and start flying in late April, but an application issue with the Transportation Department has delayed the launch.

Once tickets become available, flights to England will cost $8 750 for one passenger and up to two pets weighing less than 50 pounds (22kg) combined or one heavier dog. Travel to Paris and Lisbon is slightly higher, at $8 995 and $9 450, respectively.

Tom Shore, who organised his charter plane group, paid $14 000 to fly his wife, Sharyn; their Irish wolf hound, Carri; and Rocky the Labrador to London.

The quartet, who will reside on a narrow boat in England, left North Carolina a few months before K9 Jets’s anticipated debut. Shore said he would have gladly relinquished the leadership role to someone else.

“It would have taken six months of stress and worry off my shoulders,” he said. “I would have been much more relaxed if I didn’t have to deal with paying $135 000 and finding 20 people to fill the plane.”

Shore crossed the Atlantic with nine dogs and eight humans, all of whom met in a New Jersey hotel parking lot for a play date.

The next day, the dogs gathered in the airport lounge before trotting up the plane’s stairs and settling in for the six-and-a-half hour overnight flight. “The dogs snoozed for about 99% of the time,” Shore said.

Back on the ground, a company that handles pet paperwork boarded the plane to check the manifest and the dogs’ microchips.

After receiving the all-clear, the passengers disembarked and headed for the closest patch of grass, much to everyone’s relief.

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