Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Air Travel, Gone To The Dogs

It had to happen. In the last several years, Americans have spent more and more money on luxuries – for pets. We've seen the arrival of gourmet foods for pets, hotels for pets, and even bikinis for pets. So I shouldn't have been s0urprised the other day when I learned that there is now an airline for pets. That's right, all of Pet Airways' passengers are animals – and not the kind that sit next to you and snore or spill their drinks on you. I'm talking about the kind that you feed and take for walks.

I don't blame anyone for not wanting to put their pets in a crate that goes with cargo or luggage. I wouldn't want our dog to travel like that. But somehow, we've all gotten along for many years without asking our pets if they want a window or an aisle seat.

Americans will spend an estimated $45.4 billion on their pets this year. That's more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world. That's more than we spend on movies, video games, and music combined. I don't think we're going to hear about the pet industry asking for a bailout.

Of course, in these tough economic times, there are people who can't afford to have pets. But there are still others who will pay over $900 for their dogs to have testicular implants so they can still look "macho" after they've been neutered.

We spend more than twice as much on our pets as we did a decade ago. There are probably all kinds of reasons why this is so. More people work at home, so maybe they want the company of a pet. Maybe more single people have decided they don't need to be alone. And maybe as our world gets more mechanized, there's a desire to have something that's actually alive – something that you don't have to plug in 0or reboot.

For whatever reason, pets have increasingly become part of the family. More than half of all dog owners say they consider their pet's comfort when they buy a car. (I wonder what percentage considers their in-laws' comfort when they buy a car). People buy clothing for their pets, celebrate their birthdays, and put braces on their teeth. That's a bit over the top, don't you think? Sure, I leave the TV on for our dog, but I can't help it if he likes sports.

Having your pet fly as a passenger on Pet Airways isn't any more expensive than putting him or her on a regular airline. It falls into the coddling "let's have him be more comfortable category" like the car a pet owner might buy. The seats have been removed from the plane's cabin, and pets travel in air-conditioned comfort in their own private kennel crates. A veterinary technician checks on them throughout the flight. When the plane lands on an in-between location, a flight attendant takes them for a walk, looking for the most convenient patch of grass. For their in-flight entertainment, they probably get to watch something like "Milo and Otis" or "Old Yeller." It all sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

But I worry about what problems might develop, and I wonder if the owners of Pet Airways have thought this whole thing through. Of course, there is no first class and coach distinction on these flights. But how long will it take for some ritzy pet owners to request that their fancy cats or dogs fly up front, away from those that came from the pound?

I'm also concerned about the possibility of "ethnic profiling." With concerns about security so high, will an American spaniel or an Irish setter be waved right onto the plane, while people in uniform stop and search a Russian wolfhound or an Afghan? And you know they're going to be suspicious of a cat who happens to be a Persian.

There are bound to be some civil rights, anti-discrimination lawsuits brought against this pets-only airline. They'll be brought by people who want to get on that plane along with the pets. Here's why: the passengers travel comfortably, there's no line for the bathroom, and every 15 minutes, the airline's president walks down the aisle with kind words and snacks. When was the last time you were treated like that on a regular airline?


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