Why pet owners in Hong Kong are hiring private planes for their pets

Hong Kong (CNN) – “Private jet for your pet” is the kind of phrase you might expect to hear from a movie star or media mogul.

But in 2022 Hong Kong is just as likely to be looking into this very unusual expense.

Many people who are moving away from the financial hub have not been able to guarantee out-of-town flights for their dogs and cats, leading to online groups where desperate pet parents try to pool their money to cover the cost of the chartering a charter plane.

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Olga Radlynska says her company has flown dogs of all sizes on their jets.

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Hong Kong has some of the toughest Covid policies in the world. Almost all non-residents are prohibited from entering the city, while locals who leave and then return are subject to three-week quarantines, which can be in expensive hotels or government quarantine facilities, even if they test negative for the virus multiple times.
As a result, around 40% of expatriates surveyed in 2021 said they were considering leaving the city forever and permanently relocating themselves and their families elsewhere.
Olga Radlynska is the Hong Kong-based founder and director of Top Stars Air, a private airline.

He says Top Stars has shifted most of its business from private flights for corporate executives and to group rental for pet flights.

“People have to move one way and they have to move pets,” he says. “Sometimes the fur parents have already moved, but the pets are still here.”

The clientele of these charter companies has also changed. Now, it is the working class and middle class people who are desperate for options in a city where the commercial airline industry is alive.

Radlynska estimates that his company’s pet transport business has grown by “700%” since the start of the pandemic. Less than 1% are people trying to bring their pets to Hong Kong.

And there are not only cats and dogs on board. Radlynska says Top Stars also transported hamsters and rabbits, while Jolie Howard, CEO of jet charter broker L’Voyage, says her company handled the requests for transportation of birds and turtles.
These pleas grew stronger after more than 2,500 small animals were culled in Hong Kong after a single case of the Delta variant was linked from a hamster to a pet shop employee.

Another Hong Kong-based private airline, Life Travel, tells CNN that 98% of its flights currently are transfer flights. Prior to the pandemic, its main offering was charters to and from Japan. Now, however, it has turned towards the moving business and operates one-way routes from Hong Kong to Japan, the United Kingdom and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Top Star’s busiest routes are, in order, London, Singapore, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Many of Hong Kong's private airlines say January 2022 is on track to be the most important month ever for pets.

Many of Hong Kong’s private airlines say January 2022 is on track to be the most important month ever for pets.

Limited life

It’s not just the constantly changing Covid travel restrictions that have impacted pet travel. Some commercial airlines have strict policies on how animals can travel: some require that larger animals be placed in kennels and / or airlifted, and some don’t want to take the risk of flying a snub-nosed dog breed like the popular French Bulldogs due to the increased likelihood of health problems in the sky.

Howard of L’Voyage had a lot of experience flying pets aboard private planes before the pandemic, but he tells CNN that pet owners have become increasingly desperate as Hong Kong cancels flights and bans several airlines.

“Pets are part of the family,” he says. “Many people wait 12 months for a flight. From what I understand there are several thousand animals (in Hong Kong) waiting to board flights for their owners.”

He says half of L’Voyage’s business is now pet-related.

Private aviation companies such as L’Voyage work closely with pet owners to make sure pets are microchipped, have all the correct paperwork, are transported properly sized and certified, and have all the necessary vaccinations to fly.

The process can be daunting, and commercial airlines don’t always have the bandwidth to support customers in a practical way.

“At the moment,” says Howard, “we are providing support to fill the gaps that the airline cannot fill.”

Radlynska says that while she’s glad her business managed to stay afloat during the tough times for the travel industry, it’s not worth taking advantage of the misfortunes of others.

“In terms of business, it’s been a huge plus. But at the same time it’s devastating to see people practically evacuating Hong Kong with their pets. And they want to leave yesterday.”

CNN’s Jadyn Sham and Teele Rebane contributed to the report.

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