For pet owners, relegating your four-legged companion to the cargo hold of an airline can be a crushing decision. The news is dotted with horror stories of lost pets, escaped pets, overheated pets.
Pet Airways aims to change that.
The Fort Lauderdale-based company is the first regularly scheduled airline just for pets. And they're expanding.
For $99 (New York to Washington) or $249 (New York to Fort Lauderdale), you can transport your pet in a pampered environment on a jet that carries only pets with as little stress as possible.
The reunions of pet and owner in their terminals are as frenzied and emotional as any human airport reunions. Nury Torres Lebega, who was just transferred to a big new job in South Florida, waited anxiously in the lobby of the Pet Airways terminal on the opposite side of the airport from the human terminal.
"Yeah, I am very desperate for her to get here," she said, showing off a photo of Soco on her camera. Soco is a charming mix with one ear up and one ear down. Nury admitted she's a bit nervous. "I just want to see her."
She even checked with Pet Airways staff, who track the progress of the flight on the Internet. "Twenty-six minutes away," she was told.
By the time the sleek corporate jet rolls up on the tarmac, the waiting room is full of humans eager to see their little ones.
The Pet Airways staff moves carts into place with the efficiency of a major airline unloading baggage. But this cargo is treated like royalty - albeit in travel crates - with occasional gentle reassurances.
"Hi there, little one. It's ok," says one staffer to a Cocker Spaniel mix, a bit perplexed by the engine noises and the unusual surroundings.
On a recent flight from New York, there are more than a dozen dogs, two kittens, and a large exotic bird being rescued from a Boston bird rescue group to a trained caretaker from Sunrise.
As the cargo is wheeled into a holding area, but not yet into the arms of their owners, the cacophony is striking: little barks, big barks, and the occasional bird screech.
But that's nothing. Pet Airways has already transported a Hermit Crab, a gecko, gerbil, Guinea Pig, dogs, cats, even pigs. Yes, at Pet Airways they proudly say pigs can fly.
On cross country flights, the jet stops for re-fueling in Omaha. So Pet Airways takes all their passengers for leashed walks in a fenced grassy area to drink, get a bite to eat, and do some business.
"Hey, they're a part of the family," said company co-founder Alysa Binder. "You know, we want to take care of them. Would you relegate your family member to cargo?"
She launched the company only a few years ago with her husband after they tried to fly their own pet from one city to another.
"So we started researching and talking to people and we realized there wasn't a better way," Binder said. "So, Dan Wise, my husband said 'let's build Pet Airways' and I said 'I'm in.'"
The waiting room is complete with pet magazines, pet products, pet posters, even pet pads.
In walked the staffer with the first four-legged passenger, announcing its name to happy owners. One after another they are lead through the doors and into elation. Soon, the entire waiting room was a party of wagging tails and licking faces.
One family is there to pick up a rescued dog. They've never met their new family member, and she has never met them. Yet, because of the family's willingness to adopt her and fly her here, she has no idea her life is about to change dramatically for the better.
"Soco!" yelps Nury. Despite wagging tails and wiggling bottoms, Nury picks up Soco - who is the size that makes it a tad difficult to actually pick up. No matter. It's a reunion. Nury and Soco, and all the rest, walk out the door, tails still wagging as they head toward home.