Welcome Aboard! PetAirways Make Dogs and Cats Traveling VIPs

06/03/2009 at 07:45 AM EDT

Welcome Aboard! PetAirways Make Dogs and Cats Traveling VIPs
Your pets will be begging to fly on PetAirways, an animal-friendly airline launching July 14 and serving five cities – Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

Among the airline's amenities, dogs and cats -- known as "pawsengers" -- won't have to ride in the cargo hold anymore, but instead get their own secured crate in coach. Before departure, they can relax in a pet lounge or enjoy a walk by an attendant. And on cross-country flights, PetAirways makes stops and removes "pawsengers" from the plane so they can take a potty break.

"There is a huge need for safe air travel for pets," founder Alysa Binder, who runs the start-up airline with husband Dan Wiesel, tells PEOPLE Pets. In fact, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution's review of Department of Transportation records covering a 12-month stretch in 2007 and 2008 showed that commercial airlines reported 29 animal deaths, as well as 13 injuries and seven lost pets. Causes of death ranged from heat prostration to lack of oxygen to injuries suffered while trying to escape from improper crates.

While those statistics are a fraction of the estimated half-million companion animals flying each year, the statistics didn't include animals transported by commercial breeders -- and animal activists have contended the statistics are skewed.

"We tell people, if there's another way to transport your pet other than commercial airlines, do it," says San Francisco veterinarian Dr. Jack Aldridge of the San Francisco SPCA. "While [flying a pet in cargo] is a relatively safe thing to do with precautions, there are tragedies."

This is what PetAirways aims to cure. Binder -- who hopes there will be enough demand for the airline to expand to 25 cities in the next couple of years -- spoke with PEOPLE Pets about the VIP treatment animals can expect on their flights.

How did you come up with the idea for PetAirways?
In 2001, my husband, Dan, and I were high-tech start-up consultants moving from Silicon Valley to Florida and we had had to fly our dog, Zoe, in cargo. It was very stressful for her – cargo holds are dark, loud, fresh air might not be circulating. You're basically relegating your pet to luggage and she's part of our family. When we arrived she was out of sorts, but many animals get injured, experience heat prostration and psychological problems after flying.

How does PetAirways operate?
Our flight operators are Suburban Air in Omaha, Nebraska. We have taken a 19-passenger plane, a turbo prop, and removed the seats and overhead compartments and replaced them with 50 pet carriers that are strapped in and secured with special strapping mechanisms, like passengers with their own seatbelts. They fly in the cabin that's well-lit and climate-controlled and circulating with fresh air. There is an attendant on duty at all times, a trained veterinarian technician who monitors the pets.

Can owners fly with their pets?
No. They drop off pets and take their own flight. But if there are delays with your flight, someone is always with your pet. We allow the pets to have personal items for medication and food but it has to fit in the carrier. We serve the animal food in the lounges but not on the plane because the animals may have a bad reaction.

We have a veterinarian, Dr. Jeff Werber, writing our protocols along with our animal behaviorist, Arden Moore. When you drop off your pet, an attendant always monitors it until it's picked up on the other end. After you check in your pet at the counter, if it's early, they are taken for a walk and then put in the carrier. We feed them and play with them.

How often do flights run?
We start on July 14 – from the east coast to the west coast and on July 16 from west coast to the east coast. The west route starts in Los Angeles, flies to Denver, then Chicago and then New York. As we add more flights they will be more direct. During stops, we take the animals off the plane and give them a potty break. It's all about the care and comfort of the pets.

How expensive are the flights?
The inaugural flight is $149 one way but general fares are $250 one way.

Does PetAirways have plans to assist any animal charities?
We're working with Best Friends Animal Sanctuary by donating flights for pet adoptions and rescue and there is room on our flights for those animals.

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