January 28, 2015

Why Take Your Cat? Qatar Airways Lets You Fly With Your Falcon

These days, we see a variety of animals in the cabin as we fly, and I don’t mean the misbehaving passengers. We see the usual small dogs and cats — who are supposed to be tucked away in a special carrier kennel under their owners’ seats — and then there are the service animals, which are usually medium to large dogs such as Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds. A third (but more conspicuous group) are the emotional support animals. There has been much debate recently over the legitimacy of emotional support animals. While I don’t doubt that a very small percentage of people do have a valid medical reason for bringing them, many well-traveled passengers and flight attendants believe a lot of these folks are bending the rules in order to fly with their pets.

Falconry-Isabell-SchulzFinally, we have another group of pets which belong in a different class. These pets are falcons – yes, actual birds of prey – and some airlines have special policies that allow passengers to being their cherished raptors on board their flights. On my recent trip to Qatar to see Qatar Airways’ first Airbus A350 XWB, I was surprised to learn about a unique and very expensive hobby that has existed in the Middle East for thousands of years – falconry.

In Doha, we toured Souq Waqif. A souq is a “standing market” that is equally popular among both citizens and tourists. Shoppers can buy almost everything here, from food and bulk spices to clothes and home decorations. And yes, one can even buy pets at the souq. After passing all of the stalls selling bunnies, kittens, puppies and color-dyed parakeets, we came to a couple of stores that sell falcons. The market was not yet open for the day and we were short on time, but we managed to talk our way into one of the stores by knocking on a window. Once inside, it was very quiet and a little bit creepy, to be honest. The store itself was very nice, but to see a few dozen of these majestic birds sitting silently on their perches was slightly intimidating for some reason. A sandbox surrounded the falcons’ perches. I was allowed to go into the sandbox to see the birds up close and take a few photos; though most of them were wearing blindfolds and I was walking very softly, each bird would turn its head toward me as I came close. They’re absolutely fascinating creatures. We were told that we could take one home for the starting price of about USD $20,000, and the price range tops out at over ten times that amount.

Next door to the falcon store exists a state-run falcon hospital. It was closed, but through the window we could see the waiting room, which looked like any typical doctor’s office waiting room. Clean and white, with chairs along the walls and a flat screen TV mounted to the wall. In the center of the room were several falcon perches. The facility offers everything a falcon owner could want for his prized pet, including microbiology, pathology and radiology.

Traveling with your falcon is also possible. Qatar Airways has allowed falcons on board for several years, knowing the importance of these animals to their owners. Here’s how it works.

A representative from Qatar Airways told me that up to six falcons can ride along per flight, and can only ride in economy class. In addition, “the falcon has to be caged and properly hooded and secured in a separate seat. A chain or cord must be attached to one of the bird’s legs and tied securely to the handler to prevent the bird from flying.” Separate seat, caged and tied down. Check. But if you’re wealthy enough to own a falcon, you probably want to fly up front, so this means you may even be bringing a second person with you, to ride in economy with the bird. A cage with a drape over it helps keep the birds calm. They have to be secured not only for passengers’ safety, but also because they’re messy critters.

Qatar Airways’ Middle Eastern counterparts also allow falcons in the cabin. Etihad and Royal Jordanian charge three times the excess baggage rate in order to do so. In December, Lufthansa announced it will join the flock of bird-allowing airlines. To my knowledge, none of the U.S. based airlines allow falcons in the cabin, though we have seen some pretty strange animals flying under the “emotional support animal” entitlement of late including lizards, ferrets and even a pig. No matter what kind of furry or feathered friend you love, be sure to check with your airline to see if you can travel with the animal, and how you would go about doing so in a way that will keep everyone happy.

Paul Thompson has over 13 years of experience working in the airline industry. He is based in Denver, Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter at @FlyingPhotog or on his personal blog

About the Author

Paul Thompson



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