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Japanese airline to allow pets on board as industry reels from pandemic hit

In this photo provided by Star Flyer Inc., a pet carrier is placed on the window seat at the back of the cabin, next to its owner.

TOKYO -- The commercial aviation industry continues to struggle amid the coronavirus pandemic, and as part of attempts to offer unique new features, Japanese airline Star Flyer Inc. is working to introduce Japan's first "fly with your pet" service as early as spring 2022.

    Apart from guide dogs and helper dogs who can board airplanes with their human partners, Japanese airlines keep pets in a part of the cargo hold. Star Flyer, based in the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Kitakyushu, is looking to allow small dogs and cats which could fit in a carrier of around 50 centimeters long by 40 cm wide and 40 cm high to be carried into the passenger area. The owner would board while keeping their pet in the carrier. Although giving pets water will be allowed, feeding them or letting them out of the carrier at airports or on board will be prohibited. Owners will also be asked to have their pet wear a diaper to prevent the smell of their droppings spreading.

    The airline initially plans to offer the new service on the Kitakyushu-Haneda route. For the time being, the offer will be to one human-animal pair per flight. The only designated seat for the animal, one of some 150 seats in the cabin, is by a window and situated all the way at the back. The case carrying the pet is placed in the window seat while the owner sits next to it. Fees for the new service are yet to be decided.

    Star Flyer says the coronavirus crisis is one reason behind the new initiative's launch. Amid huge blows across the commercial airline industry, Star Flyer's September 2021 non-consolidated midterm figures saw a current loss of nearly 2.7 billion yen (about $23.4 million). While the pandemic-caused decrease in customer numbers was smaller compared to 2020, sales were not even half of pre-COVID levels.

    It was then that the airline took notice of growing demand for pets. The Japan Pet Food Association said that as of October 2020, the number of dogs being kept as pets over the preceding year had increased by some 58,000. The same trend was seen for cats, of which there were 67,000 more. Both animals saw the largest increase in pet numbers in the past five years.

    A Star Flyer representative told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Many passengers have voiced concerns that they are worried about keeping their pets in the cargo hold, and so we devised the plan to let them board with their pets." With the new service, the company is looking ahead to a post-COVID world. "Some predict airlines won't get 100% of business travelers back. We hope by offering unique services, we'll be able to gain passengers."

    Many pet owners welcomed the initiative when Star Flyer announced Japan's first ever pet boarding plans in September 2021. The company received comments including, "It's about time" and "This makes me happy."

    A cat is seen in a carrier ahead of a trial flight. (Photo courtesy of Star Flyer Inc.)

    During a trial flight with actual passengers, Star Flyer employees took a dog and a cat each kept in a carrier to the end of the aisle. In the two trials so far, the animals remained calm and reportedly no passengers submitted complaints.

    How do other public transportation operators treat people's furry companions? Although some operators charge for pets, railway firms generally allow small animals on board as long as they are in carriers or cases. Guide dogs and helper dogs are exempt from these rules.

    Regarding Star Flyer's new service, aviation and travel analyst Kotaro Toriumi told the Mainichi, "A considerable number of people hesitate to travel because they don't want their pets put in the airplane cargo. I think Star Flyer will be able to cater to the demands of passengers who want to travel with their pets even if it has additional costs, and it could be a reason for customers to fly with Star Flyer."

    At the same time, Toriumi said, "In Japan, many people worry about allergic reactions, and I think it will be a challenge to allow all passengers to have their pets with them. But it is very much possible for airline companies focused on local, smaller flights to start similar services to Star Flyer."

    (Japanese original by Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

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