One trip for their Jack Russell terrier in a plane's cargo hold was enough to convince Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel that owners needed a better option to get their pets from one city to another.
On Tuesday, the first flight for the husband-and-wife team's Pet Airways, the first-ever all-pet airline, took off from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y.
All commercial airlines allow a limited number of small pets to fly in the cabin. Others must travel as checked bags or in the cargo hold - a dark and sometimes dangerous place where temperatures can vary wildly.
Binder and Wiesel used their consulting backgrounds and business savvy to start Pet Airways in 2005. The last four years have been spent designing their fleet of five planes according to new four-legged requirements, dealing with FAA regulations and setting up airport schedules.
The two say they're overwhelmed with the response. Flights on Pet Airways are already booked up for the next two months.
Pet Airways will fly a pet between five major cities - New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. The $250 one-way fare is comparable to pet fees at the largest U.S. airlines.
For owners the big difference is service. Dogs and cats will fly in the main cabin of a Suburban Air Freight plane, retooled and lined with carriers in place of seats. Pets (about 50 on each flight) will be escorted to the plane by attendants that will check on the animals every 15 minutes during flight. The pets are also given pre-boarding walks and bathroom breaks. And at each of the five airports it serves, the company has created a "Pet Lounge" for future fliers to wait and sniff before flights.
The company will operate out of smaller, regional airports in the five launch cities, which will mean an extra trip for most owners dropping off their pets if they are flying too. Stops in cities along the way means the pets will take longer to reach a destination than their owners.
A trip from New York to Los Angeles, for example, will take about 24 hours. On that route, pets will stop in Chicago, have a bathroom break, play time, dinner, and bunk for the night before finishing the trip the next day.
Amanda Hickey of Portland, Ore. is one of the new airline's first customers. Her seven-year-old terrier-pinscher mix Mardi and 2-year-old puggle Penny are taking their first flight soon.
Hickey said the service was a welcome alternative to flying her dogs in cargo when she transplants them from her soon-to-be Denver home to Chicago to stay while she and her fiance travel to Aruba to get married.
"For a little bit more money, I have peace of mind," she said.
It was a stressful experience in a cargo hold that spurred Binder and Wiesel to start their airline. Their Jack Russell terrier, Zoe, flew once in cargo and Binder said they worried about how the dog was doing, but were unable to check on her or get information. The couple soon started looking for a better solution.
"One time in cargo was enough for us," Binder said, walking through an airplane hangar as Zoe trotted in front of her. "We wanted to do something better."
The company, which will begin with one flight in each of its five cities, is looking to add more flights and cities soon. In the next three years, Binder hopes to fly to 25 locations.
Among the big U.S. carriers that offer pet services, AirTran, Spirit, Southwest and JetBlue only allow pets to fly in the cabin. Most U.S. airlines charge between $100 and $125, but Delta and Northwest charge $150 for cabin trips. AirTran is the cheapest among big carriers at $69.
The charge is more to fly in the cargo or check-baggage holds. Delta and Northwest are the most expensive at $275. Alaska Airlines and Midwest charge the least, at $100. Frontier prices its checked pets fees between $100 and $200 and only takes pets as checked baggage.
Anne Banas, executive editor of SmartTravel.com, questions the viability of an airline with such a specific niche.
"I'm not sure how sustainable it is," she said. "But if people are trying to go for a first-class service, it could make sense."
She said the service's popularity could spike in peak summer or winter months when airlines in some areas don't allow pets to travel.
Betsy Saul, co-founder of Petfinder.com, which has ranked the pet-friendliness of airlines for three years, said she's excited about the expected impact Pet Airways will have on pet travel across major airlines.
"The entire industry will stretch because of Pet Airways," she said. "It's a challenge that says 'let's make this (experience) better for pets." '