June 19, 2024

It’s a dog’s life

As plans are unveiled for a premium jet service devoted to dogs, we ask how much should airlines be pampering to their passengers' pets?

A dog isn’t every man’s best friend, especially if it’s snorting, farting and dribbling in the seat next to him on a 13-hour flight.

An assistance dog, guilty of all of the above on a Paris to Singapore flight last year, led to a complaint that drew much media attention (and some brilliant headlines) and eventually forced Singapore Airlines to refund the victims the entire cost of their tickets.

In its defence, Singapore Airlines said it “endeavours to notify customers who may be seated next to an assistance dog prior to boarding the flight” and is committed to working with its airport teams to ensure that this “lapse does not occur in future”.

In a happy ending, the complaining passengers donated their refund to a guide dog charity.

Pet policies

While this tale will no doubt prompt a few chuckles, the incident highlights the need for airlines to tread carefully with their inflight pet policies. A surprisingly high number of airlines allow emotional support or assistance animals to fly in the cabin with their owners, with the notable exception of commercial flights to and from the UK. A fair few also allow passengers to travel in the cabin with their regular pets, particularly on domestic routes.

However, there are strict restrictions, chiefly a maximum weight for the animal – usually 8kg (think miniature poodle, jack russell or chihuahua), although some airlines are more generous.

On US domestic flights with Southwest Airlines, for example, there is no weight limit, although four-legged companions need to comfortably fit in a holdall no larger than 47 x 34 x 24cm. Owners can even buy a Southwest branded carrier from the airline for $58.

The number of pets per flight is limited – usually between two and six – and rules also stipulate that animals must remain in their ‘containers’ at all times, at the airport and throughout the flight, which is no mean feat for your average doggy.

Airlines reserve the right to deny boarding to pets behaving badly. According to Southwest, examples of disruptive behaviour include urinating or defecating in the cabin or gate area (fair enough), growling, biting or lunging (again, understandable) but also scratching, excessive whining or barking, which are more difficult to control. It’s difficult for owners to know how well their pup will cope with the flying experience.

Cattle class

In general, airlines don’t allow passengers with pets to sit in bulkhead rows, emergency exit rows or in premium cabins with lie-flat seats. While these seats are a luxury for humans, they weren’t designed with animals in mind due to the lack of secure, under-seat storage. JetBlue, for example, tells owners: “We know how much you love to spoil your pet, but they’re not allowed in Mint.” But it then boasts about its generous legroom in economy, with more room to slide in pet containers.

“We know that people are happy when their furbabies are happy, so our mission to bring humanity back to air travel extends to four-legged humans, too. You don’t have to ruff it,” says the airline.

White paw service

‘Ruffing it’ is definitely not an option for canine passengers on a new airline, BARK Air, which is due to launch towards the end of May and is promising to put the happiness of dogs first and humans second. It’s the dream of Matt Meeker, the CEO and co-founder of Bark, the company behind BarkBox, a monthly subscription service providing dog products, services and experiences. A tongue-in-cheek promotional video shows dogs being served chewed-up trainers in silver serving domes and dribbling over inflight movies of squirrels.

The experience BARK Air is actually offering, however, is almost as unbelievable: calming pheromones, music and colours, warm lavender-scented refreshment towels, noise-cancelling earmuffs, calming jackets, a beverage of the dog’s choice during take-off and descent “to ensure they don’t suffer ear discomfort”, and a variety of BARK-branded treats, snacks and surprises.

Dogs of all sizes and breeds are welcome. “In fact, oversized dogs, dogs who hate crates, snub nose dogs, and all the other dogs out there who have never had an opportunity to fly, you are our VIPs (Very Important Pups),” says the website.

Once-a-week flights will operate from New York’s Westchester County Airport to Los Angeles (Van Nuys Airport) in each direction, as well as twice monthly from New York to London Stansted, on jets owned and operated by charter company Talon Air. The aircraft normally seats 14, excluding the flight crew, but BARK Air will limit capacity to 10 people to ensure adequate space for dogs, who can sit anywhere on the plane – laps, seats, beds, or wherever they’re comfortable. New York-LA flights are currently on sale for $6,000 per dog (their humans fly for free) and from NYC to London for $8,000, but BARK Air intends to bring the price down if demand is high enough.

Light bites

The news of BARK Air’s launch was met with a degree of scepticism and some observers cast doubt on whether it will succeed, arguing that it’s purely a publicity stunt to promote and sell more BARK products.

Spanish airline Vueling encountered a similar response last year when it became the first airline, at least in Europe, to introduce doggy treats to its inflight snack offering. The pocket-size lamb and beef bites are 100% grain-free, high in protein and gently baked.

They were developed in collaboration with Newrest Travel Retail and Belgian pet food company Edgar and Cooper, known for its sustainable natural ingredients. Sebastian Junca, Retail Director Spain for Newrest, insisted it was not a PR stunt and said the treats are proving “quite popular” and are selling “better than initially expected”. But he admitted they were selling more as treats for pets left at home than for animals onboard. He said other airline customers have shown interest in the initiative but added: “This type of product works better for airlines with a young and cool image.”

Animal rights

But while some airlines seem keen to improve the pet inflight experience, experts at Fetchapet, which specialises in transporting animals, believes our cherished companions are usually better off in the hold where the environment is “strictly controlled, pressurised, air-conditioned, quiet and the lights are dimmed”.

“In our opinion, it is much safer and more spacious for pets to travel in the cargo hold, in a rigid and safely strapped down travel kennel, that’s the size of a first-class sleeper seat made to measure for the individual pet,” it says.

Owners should also be aware that if their pets get poorly inflight, they can’t rely on vets being on board, or assistance from crew.

“If pets become ill during the flight, oxygen or other first aid procedures will not be administered,” warns Southwest. “In the event of an emergency, an oxygen mask may not be available for a cat or dog.”
While pets might be welcomed in the cabin, they’re not guaranteed the same level of attention in an emergency and, although not stipulated, presumably the same policy applies to inflatable life jackets and access to the emergency slide… but perhaps not on BARK Air!