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Air travel has gone to the dogs — literally. Here’s what to know about BARK Air

BARK Air officially launched this week, completing its first flight from New York to Los Angeles on Thursday. It also flies to London and aims to add more routes in the coming months.
Joe Gall
BARK Air officially launched this week, completing its first flight from New York to Los Angeles on Thursday. It also flies to London and aims to add more routes in the coming months.

Flying with your dog in first class may sound like a far-fetched dream for many pet lovers. But a new boutique airline launching this week aims to make the “white paw experience” a reality.

BARK Air describes itself as “the world’s first air travel experience designed specifically for dogs first, and their human companions second.”

“BARK Air has taken the white glove experience typical of a human’s first-class experience and redirected all that pampering to pooches – from booking to arrival, to in-flight services and disembarkation, dogs will truly be the VIPs and treated to a positively luxurious, curated experience,” it said in an announcement last month.

BARK Air officially got off the ground on Wednesday afternoon, when its inaugural flight ferried six dogs of varying breeds — from Chihuahuas to a Golden Retriever — and 11 humans (both passengers and crew) from New York to Los Angeles.

The Very Important Pups were treated to chicken-flavored puppuccinos, special cupcakes and a shoe — on a platter — to snack on, according to BARK Chief of Staff Katharine Enos. She told NPR over email that there was “no drama on board.”

“Brooklyn (dachshund) and Eddy (golden) [were] friends and played and the little dogs took nice long naps most of the way,” she added. “After lunch it was nap time for everyone. No potty accidents on board or stolen food either! Everyone felt connected in the way we were obsessed with our dogs.”

The airline is a subsidiary of BARK, the company behind dog-focused brands like the subscription service BarkBox. Co-founder and CEO Matt Meeker says he’s been working towards this idea for over a decade.

He was inspired by his late Great Dane Hugo, who traveled with him often but could never fit on a plane — like many non-lap dogs, Hugo would have had to fly in the cargo area rather than the cabin. (Meeker even flew from Florida to New York in a cargo crate to show how disorienting that experience can be, as part of Bark Air’s promotional campaign.)

Many airlines have tightened restrictions for emotional support animals on board in recent years. The logistics and cost of travel can be a highly emotional issue for many families who don’t want to leave their dogs behind when relocating, let alone vacationing, Meeker says.

“We don't think of ourselves as selling dog toys or seats on an airline,” Meeker told NPR in a phone interview. “We think of ourselves as selling awesome emotional experiences with your dog.”

It’s also an expensive one: BARK Air flights between New York and LA cost $6,000 for one dog and one human (or one human and two dogs collectively under 50 pounds) in each direction, and one-way flights between New York and London go for $8,000.

Potential customers were quick to bemoan the cost, with one social media user joking that her pup would need to start selling “paw pics” to make it work.

Meeker acknowledged that “the price is high, and it’s too high.” But he said innovations, especially related to transportation, often become less expensive over time — and he hopes that will be the case with BARK Air, too.

“We have pretty clear ways of bringing those prices down if the demand is there, and that’s what we aim to do,” he added. “We want to make this affordable and accessible for as many dogs as possible.”

The airline aims to pamper passengers, both pups and people

The airline doesn't have dog size or breed restrictions but only allows humans over age 18 (or 126 in dog years).
Joe Gall / BARK
The airline doesn't have dog size or breed restrictions but only allows humans over age 18 (or 126 in dog years).

On BARK Air, the drinks come in bowls, leashes replace seat belts, champagne is made of chicken broth and the bathroom is, well, anywhere.

“When they feel they need to go, they go,” Meeker said of the dog. “And then we clean up after them. And then we clean the plane between every turn.”

It’s one of the many unique perks — and logistical challenges — of an airline for dogs. BARK has partnered with a New York-based charter company called Talon Air, which provides the pilots, flight crew and plane, a Gulfstream V.

The jets accommodate 14 human passengers, but BARK is capping them at 10 to offer extra space. Meeker says it aims to make the experience as comfortable as possible for dogs, starting “even before the flight.”

BARK Air will do a “pup intake” to learn about the dogs’ temperament and preferences. On the day of the flight, humans are advised to show up an hour early to the terminal, where they’ll present their ID and walk straight onto the plane.

“And so what we've bypassed there is a busy commercial airport and a very rigid TSA environment, and treating the dog as just another piece of luggage,” Meeker said.

Dogs and humans get served their meals — and stow away their toys — before the flight takes off to avoid potential territorial disputes. Once in the air, dogs are offered perks like a spa treatment and blankets covered with pheromones for extra comfort. Meeker says the in-flight crew is trained in dog CPR and “fear-free behavioral practices.”

The airline has no dog size or breed restrictions, but humans must be over 18 (aka 126 in dog years). Once on board, humans are advised to keep their dogs leashed as much as possible and ask before approaching others’.

Meeker, who traveled with his dog on two recent test flights between Florida and New York, says people hoped the dogs would misbehave for purposes of the experiment — but they did anything but, even during moments of “pretty significant turbulence.”

“They calmed everyone down, they floated around, they'd take someone’s seat,” he said. “A strange dog, like, not your dog, would wander up, sit on the couch next to you, put their head in your lap, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ ”

He added, “I don’t know why I’m surprised by this, but the dogs made it magical.”

Demand already appears to be taking off

BARK Air is partnering with charter company Talon Air to offer several flights per month. Some are already sold out for June and July.
BARK Air is partnering with charter company Talon Air to offer several flights per month. Some are already sold out for June and July.

Meeker said the initial reaction to BARK Air’s launch has been “really overwhelming and positive.”

BARK Air is offering about four round-trip cross-country flights a month, with several already sold out for June and July. It’s already planning to expand its routes, starting with a New York to Paris trip beginning in the fall.

“About a third of people apparently buy their air travel six months in advance,” he said. “So we just published our schedule through the end of the year in order to serve that crowd better.”

The airline is soliciting requests for additional destinations, and Meeker said it received over 15,000 in the first week alone.

They’ve heard from military families who are moving, people who travel for business and New Yorkers spending summers outside the city — all of whom want their dogs there too. Meeker also noted significant demand from snowbirds who want to go south with their dogs for the winter and many requests for flights in and out of Chicago.

“We're just processing that information and choosing the dates, and we're learning a lot,” he added.

He hopes the forthcoming data will allow the company to make more cost-effective decisions soon.

“We’re probably doing this the most expensive way we could, which is chartering a private plane from a private owner,” he explained.

The next step would be to make a longer commitment with the charter company, leasing the plane for a month or even a year to bring down costs. Even better would be buying and outfitting a plane. Meeker has his eye on a Boeing 747 model with a back half dedicated to cargo that could serve as an additional source of revenue.

He says this team already has a design that would feature private cabins with lay-flat beds, a central “dog park” and a bar, for dog and human socializing, respectively.

“That’s the dream,” he added. “But it’ll take a little bit of time to get there.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.