Dan Wiesel and his wife, Alysa Binder, remember the guilt they felt after their Jack Russell terrier Zoe had to fly cross country in the cargo area of a plane when they moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Florida.
"When she came out she just wasn't herself," Binder said. "We thought there had to be a better way."
The couple's answer is Pet Airways, a new airline just for cats and dogs that the couple founded. The airline had its inaugural flights Tuesday from several airports, including BWI Marshall Airport.
There are no human passengers aboard Pet Airways flights, just animals, which are called "pawsengers." The animals sit in carriers that are stacked on specialized shelving units where rows of seats would be on a passenger airplane.
The airline is operated by Suburban Air and flies converted Beech 1900 aircraft, a small turboprop plane that normally seats 19 passengers but holds 50 cages for cats and dogs.
The Pet Airways terminal at BWI is located in a remote part of the airport off Aaronson Road. The pet lounge, where pets wait in carriers to be boarded, is a simple area that looks like an office.
The terminal is located away from the main terminal to give customers better parking access and to make it easier to unload. It also saves passengers from having to carry animals through long security lines.
On Tuesday's flight, about 40 animals were making the trip to Chicago from BWI, with some taking further connecting flights. The pets have dinner and spend the night in Chicago.
The biggest "pawsenger" was a Bernese mountain dog. There were also four cats, a Boston terrier, a Labrador retriever and a mini schnauzer, among other animals.
Employees, many of whom are former veterinary technicians or animal shelter volunteers, loaded the animals onto the plane about a half-hour before the flight was to take off.
Most airlines allow only small pets that fit into carriers under the seat of a plane. Larger pets have to be shipped in the cargo area, where luggage is stored. Binder said cargo areas can be uncomfortable and either too hot or too cold. The experience can make animals distressed, she said.
The airline is sold out for its first two months, Binder said. Pet Airways serves Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, but Binder said the company hopes to expand to 25 cities in a couple of years. Ticket prices average $250, Binder said.
Other airlines charge $75 to $275 for pets, with prices varying depending on where the pets ride. In May, Southwest began allowing people to bring small pets on board for $75.
One airline expert said there is a niche for people who want to take their pets on vacation and other travels. But it is unclear if this airline is the answer.
It may be complicated for passengers to plan their flights with their pet's flights, said Robert Mann, president of airline consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co. Inc.
"It's an interesting concept," Mann said. "There is a need for it. The key question is if this particular concept really meets that need. Time will tell, as it usually does."
Flying Pet Airways
1. Drop your pet off at Pet Lounge no later than two hours before takeoff. Or check them in up to 72 hours before at the PAWS Lodge for a $50-a-night fee.
2. Attendants make sure pets get regular potty breaks and walks.
3. Pets board the plane and attendants make sure they're comfortable and secure.
4. Pet attendants monitor pawsengers every 15 minutes during the flight. After landing, pets are given a potty break.
5. Pick up pet at Pet Lounge at destination. Or pet can stay at PAWS Lodge until you're ready to get it.