We’ve all heard of Snakes on a Plane, but what about parrots on a flight, falcons in the fuselage or hand-holding otters on a private jet? The crew aboard VistaJet’s private planes have seen all of the above and more since the introduction of the airline's dedicated pet service.
Designed to allow travellers chartering jets to fly more easily with their furry companions, the global company's VistaPet service has grown in popularity since it was launched in 2019. The service has now been extended to include cabin crew members who are specially trained in pet first aid, customised in-flight menus for animals and even help for nervous dogs to combat a fear of flying.
The company says the number of pets travelling on its planes has increased by 86 per cent over the past two years, with one in four clients now flying with an animal in tow. The service grew even more popular amid the pandemic, says Matteo Atti, executive vice president of marketing at VistaJet.
“More and more people are travelling with their pets, and what we hope to do is to make it the best flight ever.”
Cindy Kowalewski, a cabin hostess and trainer at the private aviation company, agrees. “We’ve absolutely seen an increase of pets on board and more pets are flying both within the US and internationally, which I think the pandemic has propelled,” she says.
A dog owner herself, Kowalewski has been through VistaJet’s pet safety training course and is now well versed in all aspects of animal first aid and is able to quickly identify pets' vital signs and can read a furry passenger’s body language.
“They’re part of the family and they’re actually my favourite kind of customer on board. It’s really nice to have them and know them on a first-name basis,” says Kowalewski.
For Atti, having crew who can tell whether an animal is tense before or during a flight is a key part of the VistaPet programme.
“When we started having more animals on board, we wanted to be able to understand the body language of a pet to understand whether they were nervous or feeling poorly.”
This became even more important when the company acquired a Bombardier Global 7500, an aircraft capable of flying for more than 17 hours non-stop.
“We focused on begin able to cater for anything that could happen in those 17 hours. We had done it already for humans, so we thought we may as well complete it for anyone who is aboard. And the second category are the pets,” says Atti.
Today, VistaJet’s crew are better able to assess whether an animal is feeling excited, nervous or starting to get aggressive, and have the tools to help calm them and encourage them to relax during the flight. “After all, pets are the passengers you can't speak to,” says Atti.
Four-legged friends with a fear of flying
But not all pets can be soothed with calming treats and a handmade sleep blanket, and some animals – just like people – can be very nervous passengers. Which is why VistaJet also offers clients the option to book their pets on a course designed to combat their fear of flying.
“The idea for that came after speaking to a very famous entertainer in the US – sadly I can't give you her name – but she was flying with her dog all around the US quite easily. But after one flight to Europe, she said she'd had ‘the flight from hell’ because her dog was very anxious and didn't stop crying for the whole journey,” says Atti.
To be able to help dogs like this feel more at ease when travelling, especially those that are going to be flying long-haul, VistaJet launched its familiarisation-training programme.
VistaJet members can drop off their four-legged friends at one of several centres to take part in the Fear of Flying course, where the animals undergo a one or two-week course designed to alleviate much of the stress of flying.
“The trainers do this by familiarising the animal to desensitise them to some of the most annoying elements of flying on a plane, which for animals are usually the smell of gasoline – which people don’t really sense, but dogs do so easily – and the vibration of the aircraft. The third thing they hate is the sense of constant moving, that loss of balance.”
Trainers first work to gain the dogs' trust, then begin exercises such as putting them on vibrating surfaces, exposing them to the smell of gasoline and holding them on a moving platform for a short period of time each day. Gradually, this teaches the dog there’s nothing to fear.
“It's about generating a sense of serenity in a place that resembles the conditions that the pet would find in a plane,” says Atti.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the service doesn't come cheap. It costs a few thousand dollars per animal, but if you’re flying privately from New York to London a few times a year and spending upwards of $100,000 on each flight then a one-off fee of a few extra thousand is relatively marginal, and can lead to much more pleasant flights.
Potato-eating parrots and a cabin full of falcons
Pets that fly privately already have an easier time of it than animals that have to travel commercially.
Flying internationally with a pet on a commercial airline more often than not means turning up at the airport early and saying goodbye to Fido or Fluffy six hours or so before departure. The animals are then loaded into cargo, where they remain inside their cage for the duration of the flight. The cargo hold isn’t particularly warm, and it's not as pressurised as the cabin, making it a rather uncomfortable journey.
And that’s all before the plane touches down on the other side and pets need to be offloaded and sent to a vet centre, where they undergo observation and assessment for another few hours before being reunited with their owners.
“When you're flying with a pet on a private jet, it's not like that. We’ve had otters holding hands in their own little bathtub in the cabin. We had parrots eating potato mash at the table with their owners,” says Atti.
“We had a falcon flock on board for one of our Arab customers. He was going to a show so he had all the falcons lined up in the cabin, and we had another member who wanted to compete in a dog show in Asia, so he brought eight dogs on-board – they were all running around the cabin.”
Switzerland, South Africa and the UAE have strict entry rules for animals
When it comes to travelling internationally with animals, regulations vary widely and can be complicated with some countries demanding a lot more than others.
“Flying within the US is quite simple because it’s a national flight, but as soon as you start to go through customs, it can become very complex,” says Atti.
“The UAE is quite strict, there's a lot of vaccinations required, and there are a lot of countries in Asia where there are specific recommendations depending on the dog type. Switzerland is also very restricted as there’s a limited number of airports where we are allowed to fly into and South Africa still requires quarantine for pets on arrival. Most other countries now allow pets to quarantine before flying and have it authorised by a vet, which is much less stressful for the animals.”
Passengers flying with VistaJet do not need to worry about tracking these regulations or making sure their pet’s paperwork is in order, as the company takes care of all that for its clients.
“The regulations are very unpredictable, so we help our customers with all the documentation before they get on the plane. We have flown to over 3,000 airports in 187 countries and we have relationships with all of these airports, so we know the rules,” says Atti.
An undocumented cat in Turks and Caicos
However, that’s not to say that things always go to plan when flying privately, as one VistaJet client found out a few months ago upon arriving in Paris to board the aircraft with an unannounced cat in tow.
“We were not expecting any animals on-board; however, the family arrived with their pet cat,” says Laura Bird, a VistaJet cabin hostess who's been flying with the company for seven years and had a particularly memorable flight to the Caribbean earlier this year.
“Knowing that the islands can be very strict on animal immigration, the captain asked if the necessary paperwork had been taken care of and was assured it had been. Unfortunately, when we landed in Turks and Caicos, the authorities were not satisfied as the documents should have been submitted two weeks prior to arrival.”
Bird and the other two members of her crew contacted the vet from the local town to find out what options they had. The vet gave them three choices: the first was that the cat could leave on a commercial cargo aircraft, but because of Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time, there were no flights available.
Option two was for the cat to spend 48 hours in quarantine at the airport and then leave with its family on a charter flight, but with the guests having just flown more than 10 hours to start a three-week family holiday, this wasn't ideal. Option three was that the cat could be put down.
“Of course, none of these options were appealing. We were departing to Nassau to spend the night there and then travelling to Europe the next day, so we offered to take the cat to the Bahamas and then back to Madrid, where she could be collected by a friend living in Spain,” says Bird.
After the captain successfully cleared the animal for landing in Nassau, the jet set off for the island, this time flying with a crew of four – the two pilots, the cabin hostess and the stowaway cat. Some 48 hours later, the family's beloved pet was back home in Paris.
“The client was happy, and the crew were happy, but the cat was especially happy that no one had to consider option three,” says Atti.