The next time you travel business class, make sure you get to know your fellow passengers. For all you know, you could be sitting next to the new VIP – a Very Important Pet.
Over the last few years, an increasing number of pets have been flying at the pointy end of the plane.
In 2021, a retired racing Greyhound named Lewis traveled on a Singapore Airline business class flight with his fur parent as they relocated from Melbourne to Italy. Lewis even reached a milestone and celebrated his birthday onboard with the crew as they crossed time zones.
Lewis relocated to Italy in style. Image: Greyt Greys Rescue Facebook page
And then there’s Pembroke Welsh Corgi Winston, a medical alert dog for seizures who flew business class on British Airways from Miami International Airport (MIA) to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR).
Perhaps the most renowned VIP of them all is Fifi, the miniature dachshund who flew business class on Turkish Airlines from Hong Kong to Paris via Istanbul with her family.
Fifi gained popularity when a video of her relaxing in the business class cabin as she flew long-haul was uploaded to social media.
The now-viral clip shows four-year old Fifi snoozing contentedly in the business class lie-flat bed as Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” plays in the background.
While most people were enamored with Fifi’s luxurious travel experience, the post also received plenty of criticism.
Many of the negative comments found the notion of a pet traveling in business class overly indulgent, with some suggesting that the money could be utilized elsewhere.
“It seems a bit sad that you’d prefer to spend tens of thousands on a dog and call it your daughter, when there are thousands of children in care homes that could become a real daughter,” one comment read, as reported by the South Morning China Post.
“I just grew up where the cost of a dog in first-class could feed a couple hundred starving kids, get them some clean clothes and maybe save literal lives, so this is hard for me to see,” another Instagram user wrote.
Another comment, shared in a story on Fifi’s Instagram account, @fifilittledarling , even went as far as to suggest the owner was “mentally ill”, adding: “Go raise a child instead”.
Fifi’s fur parent, Helen Rosalie, handles the harsh criticisms with grace. “This is just one example of the daily negativity I receive,” Rosalie said in the Instagram story.
“I thank them for the comment,” Rosalie told AeroTime during a telephone interview, noting that these types of comments help with the account’s algorithms.
Fifi with furparent Helen. Source: Helen Rosalie @fifittledarling
“The people who write these messages are trolls and are obviously hurting, so they tear strangers on the internet down so they can make themselves feel better. A simple ‘Are you okay, hun?’ and they’ll probably break down and realize what they’re doing,” Rosalie added.
Improved relations between humans and pets
But when did humans start treating pets like, well, humans? Let’s take a look at how the relationships between people and their pets have evolved through the years.
The human-canine bond can be traced back thousands of years to the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, who was found buried in a suburb in Bonn, Germany alongside two humans in 1914. The remains, a dog, a man and a woman, may be the earliest evidence of pet-human bonding, according to National Geographic.
Cats, whose relationships with humans have not been as symbiotic as dogs, are believed to have been first domesticated in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago, according to a study by German pharmaceutical group Boeringer Ingelheim.
Relationships between humans and animals have steadily grown throughout the years, but a study from the University of South Australia found that during the pandemic, humans became closer to their pets.
“Pets seem to be particularly important when people are socially isolated or excluded, providing comfort, companionship and a sense of self-worth,” Dr Jeanette Young, the study’s lead author said in a statement.
“Touch is an understudied sense, but existing evidence indicates it is crucial for growth, development and health, as well as reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. It is also thought that touch may be particularly important for older people as other senses decline,” Young added.
The study found that many people referenced a pet’s seemingly innate ability to just “know” when their humans weren’t feeling well and to want to get physically close to them.
Fifi, the miniature dachshund globe-trotting in style, had just moved to the United States with her family. Rosalie told AeroTime that Fifi had completed her therapy dog program and will soon be one of the official therapy dogs at Charleston International Airport (CHS).
Not just a pretty face: Fifi will be an official therapy dog for Charleston Airport (image source: @fifilittledarling )
Other airports in the United States, such as Vermont’s Burlington International Airport (BTV), also use therapy dogs to help ease the nerves of anxious and stressed passengers, especially those whose flights are delayed.
Pets are the new kids
There’s a saying that has been doing the rounds: “Pets are the new kids, and plants are the new pets.” And based on this article by a New Zealand outlet, kids are the new exotic animals – reserved for a smaller, wealthier percentage of the population.
This sums up the sentiments of many Millennial and Generation Z members, and is cited as the number one reason why they prefer to have pets over children.
Are pets the new kids? Image: Veera / Shutterstock.com
This trend was seen long before the pandemic. A 2016 article by Forbes reported that Millennials are admittedly spending a fortune on their pets, but acknowledges that it is still considerably less than raising a (human) child.
Given the affinity people currently have with their pets, it’s not surprising that the aviation industry is witnessing a greater number of furry friends being treated more like a human than a pet.
Flying pets on commercial flights: possible but restricted
The good news is more and more airlines are allowing pets to fly either in the cargo hold or the aircraft cabin itself. At the time of publication, these are the carriers that allow pets to travel inside the aircraft cabin.
The not-so-good news? The rules are restrictive and are not consistent across all airlines.
For instance, most airlines state that the only animal allowed in the cabin without a pet carrier is a qualified service animal.
Depending on the airline, non-service animals must weigh 7-8 kilograms in total, including the carrier. The carrier must fit under the seat in front, there can only be one pet per carrier, and the pet must be able to stand up and turn around while inside.
The age of your pet is also a factor. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which regulates air transportation of pets, requires dogs to be at least eight weeks old and fully weaned from their mother before they can fly.
Airlines may also have individual rules regarding a pet’s age. Transporting puppies younger than 12 weeks is not allowed on most airlines, as they will likely not have their vaccinations complete.
Traveling with pets via commercial carriers comes with lots of regulations and restrictions. Source: Masarik / Shutterstock.om
Your pet’s breed is also a big factor in commercial flights. Most airlines will not allow brachycephalic dog breeds to fly, be it in the cabin or cargo. Brachycephalic dogs are those considered to be “snub-nosed” such as pugs, bulldogs, and Pekingese dogs.
According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, these dogs have been bred to have relatively short muzzles and noses and, because of this, the throat and breathing passages are frequently undersized or flattened. This is a big health risk that can easily be fatal when flying.
If your pet does not fit the above restrictions, it will have to be taken as checked-in luggage and will be placed in the aircraft’s cargo hold. Most fur parents cannot accept the thought of their pets alone, stressed and confused in the freezing temperatures of the plane cargo hold.
Moreover, there have been plenty of stories of pets dying in both the cabin and cargo hold.
In 2018, United Airlines reached a settlement with the owner of a French Bulldog who tragically died in the aircraft cabin. The flight attendant had allegedly insisted that the pet be stowed in the overhead luggage compartment for the entire duration of a three-and-a-half hour flight. The dog’s death turned into a viral media scandal which prompted United to change its policies regarding pet travel.
Data released by Honest Paws, which was published in an article by Forbes, showed that between 2010 and 2020, more than 250 animal ‘passengers’ died either during or immediately after air travel. Another 170 sustained injuries, while 20 animals were actually lost by airlines.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has long been discouraging people and airlines to allow animals to be placed in the cabin hold of an airplane.
“We strongly advise against transporting your animal companion by air in the cargo area,” the group states on its website, citing data from the Airline Transportation Association, which claimed that more than 5,000 animals are killed, injured, or lost on commercial flights each year.
Death is the worst case scenario when flying pets with commercial airlines, but there’s also the undue worry and stress.
In January 2023, a man was filmed visibly distressed at an airport in Istanbul after a miscommunication with a staff gave him the impression that the airline had lost his four dogs who were traveling with him to Switzerland and were placed in the cargo.
When the aircraft landed in Istanbul for a stopover, the man asked airline staff if he could check on his four dogs in the cargo. His request was denied and he mistakenly thought that his dogs were gone.
An alternate solution: pets on private jets
The undue stress and danger of flying pets in commercial carriers are driving plenty of fur parents to look for alternative ways to travel with their pets.
When world-renowned YouTuber Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, moved to Japan in mid-2021 with his wife and pets, he faced a big problem: one of his two pugs, Edgar Allan Pug, was overweight.
Kjellberg was prepared to take his pugs in the plane cabin due to the animals being brachycephalic breeds. However, Edgar was a few kilograms over the standard airline maximum weight of eight to nine kilograms, including the carrier.
Not wanting to take any risks, especially with both Edgar and the other pug, Maya, being senior dogs, Kjellberg rented a private jet to transport him, his wife and the two pugs to Japan from the UK’s Farnborough Airport (FAB).
The YouTuber documented and shared his move and private jet experience to his 111 million followers.
“We’re flying a private jet because my dog is too fat,” Kjellberg said in the video.
If you don’t have the budget of the most-paid YouTuber in the world and don’t have the means to charter a private jet, there’s still a solution: gathering a community.
When Hong Kong was in the throes of the pandemic, pet owners who wanted to relocate to another country found themselves in a difficult situation.
Hong Kong adhered to one of the world’s most stringent COVID-19 restrictions. At the height of the pandemic, Hong Kong regularly banned airlines that were found to have carried more than five passengers who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Financial Times reported that in December 2021, between 3,000 and 4,000 cats and dogs were left stranded at Hong Kong’s airport due to frequent flight suspensions.
The demand for pet travel overwhelmed airlines, including Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific. During that time, airlines restricted its intake of pets, or restricted pet travel to the cargo compartment only.
Faced with frustration and not wanting to leave their pets alone, Hong Kong residents created Facebook groups such as HK Private Jet Sharing with Dogs, which gathers pet owners who want to share the cost of a private jet to transport themselves and their pets to a destination.
Image source: @topstarsair
“Our flights can accommodate up to 10 humans and their accompanying pets; sharing flights lowers the price down to $27,000 per person,” Top Stars Air founder Olga Radlynska said, as reported by Business Insider. .
On its Facebook page, Top Stars Air posts upcoming flight schedules for pet jet share services.
In one of its blog posts, Top Stars Air said that a number of passengers and pets are already booked on the above flights, and are looking to fill available seats.
$27,000 is still much more than flying your pet commercially either in cabin or cargo, but pet owners can have peace of mind that their pets are safe when they travel. Most importantly, pet owners won’t face discrimination in breed, size, weight, and even the type of pet.
All creatures great and small are welcome on private jets.
Global private jet company VistaJet told CNN that one in four of its members now flies with a four-legged companion, while the amount of birds being taken on board is also increasing.
“Rabbits are a recent new breed of pet flown by VistaJet, and while dogs continue to make up the majority of animal passengers, the number of cats spiked 357% from 2019 to 2020,” VistaJet told CNN.
Is private pet travel here to stay?
The pandemic saw a drastic increase in pet ownership. A Forbes Advisor survey found that an overwhelming majority of pet owners (78%) acquired pets during the pandemic.
In the United States, pet industry expenditures have increased from $90.5 billion in 2018 to $103.6 billion in 2020, based on a report by Zippia. This is an increase of $13.1 billion in just two years. The report also noted that the global pet industry is expected to reach $325.74 billion in 2028.
Luxury Aircraft Solutions co-founder Daniel Hirschhorn told CNN that the private pet travel trend is largely due to the overall lifestyle shift many experienced during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing an increase in the level of leisure trips versus business trips,” Hischhorn told CNN. “You’re not going to take your dog into your meeting, but you’ll certainly take it to your other house, if that’s convenient for you.
“We’re also seeing people that have much more flexible work schedules, so they’re able to travel with their pets more often, or use that vacation home they might have only gone to for a weekend, and stay for a week or two weeks or a month.”
There are bound to be more pets traveling. Image: Javier Brosch / Shutterstock.com
With more private jet companies making private pet travel easier and more accessible, it looks like the trend will stay for long.
And if commercial airlines continue to enforce restrictions in pet travel and transport, we may even see exclusive carriers for pets such as Cat-hair Paw-cific in the skies soon.