As millions of Americans cram into coach for holiday travel, some four-legged passengers will fly on luxury private jets.
A rebound in U.S. business-aircraft trips this year means more dogs and cats are taking wing too. In addition to the perks of on-demand flights and plenty of legroom, being able to bring furry companions onboard can justify the price of a ticket, which doesn’t come cheap.
A flight on Jet Edge International costs $67,000 on average, and the company also charges a $2,000 refundable pet deposit in case of accidents on board. The average net worth of the company’s customers is $1 billion, according to Chief Executive Officer Bill Papariella.
Letting animals tag along is “one of the main reasons why people will fly private,” Papariella said in an interview. “They don’t want to go to Aspen or their holiday or to their second home without their pets being on board.”
For those with means, a charter flight or a jet with fractional ownership is an attractive alternative to airlines’ limits on carry-on kennels or the risks of sending a crated pet in the hold. It’s a niche market that can include handmade dog snacks — a $1,000 Kobe beef snack or rice pilaf with salmon — special attendants and even solo flights without an animal’s owner.
It was worth it for Dallas real estate investor Alan Box, whose purchase of a one-fourth interest in a Learjet via leasing company Flexjet a decade ago was driven chiefly by a desire to ensure that family members could enjoy getaways to their ranch in Crowheart, Wyoming, with canines in tow.
Box, 63, was living in Fairfax County, Virginia, at the time as CEO of radio-station chain EZ Communications. Commercial flight connections through Denver and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, would have been impossible with Ribsy and Cody, his full-grown chocolate and black Labrador Retrievers.
“We just thought they were too big,” said Box, who has since sold the jet share because he didn’t replace his pets when they died. “We didn’t feel like it was safe or really worth the trouble,” to fly commercial, he said.
NetJets Inc., the luxury-jet unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc, probably flew pets on about 9 percent of last year’s flights, according to figures from spokeswoman Christine Herbert and the website of the Columbus, Ohio-based company. Boston-based Magellan Jets estimates that it carries animals on a quarter of its trips, while at Jet Edge the share is about half.
As with two-legged passengers, the holidays tend to be the busiest time for animals as well. The post-Thanksgiving Sunday is “our highest-volume day of the year,” Herbert said.
While private-jet operations still aren’t back at pre-recession levels, flights are up in 2014 as an improving U.S. economy and surging corporate profits buoy business and personal travel. This year is poised to be the busiest for such trips since 2008, based on U.S. Federal Aviation Administration data through September.
A perception of safety is one of the reasons some people opt to upgrade their pets. Fifteen animals died on U.S. airline flights this year through August, down from 18 in the same period in 2013, according to U.S. Transportation Department data. And travel rules on commercial flights are poised to tighten this week, when American Airlines Group Inc. (AAL) starts requiring that pets on connecting flights be routed through one of five U.S. cities.
Airlines’ restrictions ensure that few travelers ever see a dog or cat on board.
American, for example, limits carry-on pets to a maximum of seven containers per flight, excluding service animals. Size limits on the kennels — 19 inches (48.3 centimeters) long by 13 inches wide by 9 inches high — rule out larger breeds. On private planes, pets can roam free for the duration of the flight as there are no industry-wide safety rules for non-human passengers.
Usually only dogs and cats are allowed on commercial flights, which means owners of barnyard animal-companions must make other arrangements. Emotional-support animals are allowed, but only if they are not disorderly. A woman and her pet pig were escorted off a US Airways flight out of Connecticut last week after the animal befouled the plane and was running in the aisle, according to reports from the Hartford Courant and USA Today.
“I have a client in Dubai who flies me down there to fly with him and his goat a few times a year,” said Carol Martin, the founder of Carmel, California-based Sit ’n Stay Global, which supplies pet-friendly flight attendants and “pawmenity” kits that include custom snacks.
The goat owner likes to have fresh milk and has a pen at the back of his private plane for that purpose, said Martin.
While Magellan passengers have brought along exotic birds, gerbils and hamsters, the typical private-jet-flying animal is a dog joining its owners on a family vacation, Chief Executive Officer Joshua Hebert said in an interview. Jet Edge has one celebrity athlete client who likes to have his German shepherd on all of his trips, domestic and international, CEO Papariella said.
The rarest transports are for animals traveling without an owner, perhaps the result of a couple splitting up while retaining joint custody of a pet.
“A couple times a year, we get the passenger manifest and I realize, ‘Oh my God, all there is is a dog on this plane,’’ Jet Edge’s Papariella said. ‘‘Holy cow, this person is actually paying for their pet to go somewhere.’’