Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN
Updated: Tue, 14 Sep 2021 12:12:34 GMT
It doesn't seem like that long ago that private jets were considered completely out of reach for anyone who wasn't obscenely rich or famous -- both in some cases.
But private aviation has become far more accessible over the years, and there's been a particularly large shift since 2019.
Not only has usage skyrocketed as a result of the travel chaos brought about by the pandemic, with numerous companies reporting a surge in bookings from travelers new to the private jet world, more and more are taking their pets on board with them.
Global aviation company VistaJet has reported a 86% increase in the number of animals it's flown over the last two years, and it's not just cats and dogs we're talking about.
According to Matteo Atti, executive vice president of marketing and innovation for the company, one in four of its members now flies with a four-legged companion, while the amount of birds being taken on board are also on the rise.
"Rabbits are a recent new breed of pet flown by VistaJet, and while dogs continue to make up the majority of animal passengers, the number of cats spiked 357% from 2019 to 2020," says Atti.
Meanwhile, US private jet company NetJets is embraced the significant rise in furry companions on board its flights by launching the hashtag #NetPets in order to showcase some of its cutest furry fliers.
So what's brought about this sudden increase in animals receiving the private jet treatment?
VistaJet suggest that the "fast increase in pet adoptions" during the height of the pandemic -- the number of foster pets in US homes jumped by 8% between March and September 2020 according to PetPoint, a software program with more than 1,200 shelters in its database, may have played a part.
However, Daniel Hirschhorn, co-founder of boutique private jet charter company Luxury Aircraft Solutions and monthly membership program JetMembership.com believes that this trend is largely due to the overall lifestyle shift many have experienced due to the impact of Covid-19.
"We're seeing an increase in the level of leisure trips versus business trips," he tells CNN Travel. "You're not going to take your dog into your meeting, but you'll certainly take it to your other house, if that's convenient for you.
"We're also seeing people that have much more flexible work schedules, so they're able to travel with their pets more often, or use that vacation home they might have only gone to for a weekend, and stay for a week or two weeks or a month."
Hirschhorn, who says his New York-based company has experienced a 74% jump in passengers flying with pets since 2019, also notes a rise in bookings for entire families, as opposed to just one or two people traveling together.
"Let's say you have an aircraft with eight seats," he explains. "You might have seen two or three people traveling [before], now you're seeing an average of five or six people.
"So it's kind of a shifting dynamic in who's traveling and why, which is leading to the increase in pets. "I don't think it [the upsurge] is because more people have pets. I think they're just finding more time to be with their pets."
Katelynn Stege from Texas has found herself taking more private flights with her Australian Labradoodle Moose during the pandemic, and says the comfort and convenience provided is incomparable.
"Flying privately allows your pet to be right next to you and people they are familiar with and comfortable with, whereas on a commercial flight you can't always sit next to people you know," Stege tells CNN Travel via email.
"They [the animals] have freedom to stretch their legs and roam around a little instead of being crated on a commercial flight."
Stege, who spends an average of $30,000 per flight and always uses NetJets, says she's never flown commercial with any of her dogs because she feels the process is simply too stressful for large animals.
At present, many commercial airlines will allow travelers to transport a cat or a small dog weighing less than 25 pounds in the passenger cabin provided the animal is placed in a carrier that fits under the seat in front.
However, bigger dogs are required to fly in a crate in the cargo hold, which ultimately involves some level of risk.
In January, a new Department of Transportation regulation went into effect that led to a number of different airlines, including JetBlue, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, prohibiting owners from bringing pets on board as emotional support animals, a practice that allowed bigger pets to travel in the cabin.
It's likely that this significant rule change will have prompted some of those who rely on their pets as emotional support animals and can afford private aviation to take the plunge.
"There are certainly some people that are flying private to avoid having to put their pet in the cargo hold, or just board their pet somewhere else and not bring them," adds Hirschhorn. "So we're also seeing an uptrend in that as well."
However, due to the sizable difference in price between flying commercially and taking a private jet, he think it's unlikely that this will prove to be a notable increase, simply because a lot of travelers with pets won't have the money for private plane fees.
"It's not like [many people are saying] 'I'm not able to take my pet on a regular flight that's $500, so let me spend $15,000," he adds.
"It certainly comes into play, but it's just such a huge jump in price that I don't think that that's a real key deciding factor for a lot of people."
The changing travel restrictions and overall uncertainty of the past 18 months or so have also led some devoted -- and wealthy -- pet owners to send private planes to collect their pets in order be reunited with them.
"We've just sent two cats on a private jet to Mykonos earlier this summer," Ikenna Ordor, CEO of UK private jet hire company Starr Luxury Jets, told British newspaper the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.
"They'd been left with a sitter but the owner wanted to stay out longer and missed them too much."
Hirschhorn recently arranged a booking for a customer located in California who'd just adopted a dog from Pennsylvania, and requested a private plane to collect her new pet, along with a human companion, and drop it off to her a cost of an estimated $30,000.
"I think Covid has normalized that type of behavior where people are just like, bring it [my animal] to me," he adds.
"Obviously, most people wouldn't want to spend that type of money to adopt a dog, but this was a situation where getting the dog there was more important than the money."
For Stege, who works for an oil and gas utility company, one of the biggest benefits that comes from traveling by private plane with her dog Moose is being able to avoid any situations that might be distressing for him.
"You can drive up to the plane and get on with your pet without putting them in the stressful situation of going through the airport security and being around a lot of strangers and loud noises that go on in an airport," she explains.
This sentiment is shared by Hirschhorn, who feels that the majority of private jet fliers who bring their pets along just want to be sure that the animals are settled while traveling, and are less concerned about the luxuriousness of the experience or the prospect of saving a few thousand dollars.
"It's not just that you get to take a really cute picture of your dog for Instagram," he jokes. "It's more the convenience of being with your animals the whole time and not having to worry about who's handling them and what they're doing. Or if your animal is upset or not.
"Once you really break it down, and you take away the dollars and cents, then it's basically asking 'is my family member going to be okay?'
"That's what I think a lot of pet owners are thinking. And I have dogs myself, so I understand."