The other day, I saw a post on the Wall Street Journal's (fantastic, by the way) "Middle Seat" air-travel blog about Pet Airways, a startup pet-only airline poised to launch this spring or summer. The Journal's source was apparently TechCrunch, where Michael Arrington had blogged about Pet Airways the day before.
Both TechCrunch and Middle Seat seemed to take Pet Airway's website -- the only source of information about the company -- at face value, repeating its information on inflight conditions for pets, the fleet, and the carrier's plans for initial service and future expansion.
Something felt "off" to me, though. Perhaps I'm just a cynical bastard -- toiling in the plastic-lined trenches of TV news can certainly do that to one -- but the idea of a pet airline seemed just a bit too fantastical and hinky. And, as my friend Amy noted, April 1 isn't far off. My curiosity was piqued. Hoax? Or nutty startup idea? (And I'm not judging startup ideas based on nuttiness: 140-character communication? Location-based cellphone games? Internet classified ads for free? Pet supplies sold by a literal sock puppet? Okay, scratch that last one.) I had a few minutes, so I decided to look into it a little.
Googling "Pet Airways" produced lots of PR-type stories written about the service and pointing back to its website. I couldn't find any stories from third parties that added any more information than was contained on the Pet Airways site. I also found this thread on Airliners.net, where aviation geeks discussed the venture's plausibility.
The Pet Airways idea felt like a hoax -- what a strange idea! -- but their site seemed surprisingly elaborate for a simple put-on. What I don't know about web design is, well, pretty much everything, but this looked like an expensive website that took a little bit of time to put together. I started compiling a mental list of pros and cons. The website had a fair amount of information on it, but it lacked any real specifics. No information, for instance, on who the management team is, who'd be operating the flights, the schedules, et cetera. I looked up the WHOIS record for the petairways.com domain name, and found that it was registered by proxy with Network Solutions Private Registration, which cloaks the registrant's identity. This was a mark in the mental "hoax" column, as was the fact that the site's route map misspells "Los Angeles." The "Our Story" page on their site lists the founders as "Dan and Alysa", but no last name or other management-team information is given.
The site's page about their aircraft fleet mentions that their "planes are operated under part 121 and part 135 of the FAA regulations." All air carriers require FAA certification in order to operate; Part 121 of the Federal Aviation Regulations governs the rules for scheduled air carriers, and Part 135 covers commuter and on-demand operations. So I decided to look for Pet Airways' operating certificate. Fortunately, the FAA makes that easy with a handy online form. (For example, here's Delta's certificate, which covers things like their fleet and other names that they do business under.) I couldn't find any listings for Pet Airways. This made it look even more like a hoax -- what sort of crazy (ahem) fly-by-night operation would go into business as an airline without getting the proper federal paperwork in order? Seems like a recipe, as one Airliners.net commenter noted, for the FAA and DOT showing up demanding an explanation.
The site's fleet page also said that "our air operations group consists of a 20 plane fleet of Falcon 20, Convair 580 and 5800 and B- 727-100 aircraft." This seemed odd to me as well. How many startup airlines have a 20-plane fleet? You certainly don't need to have a ton of planes to serve lots of destinations; for instance, Air Tahiti Nui serves six cities on four continents with a fleet of five A340s, while Air Seychelles serves eleven destinations in Europe, Asia, and Africa with four 767s. Does Pet Airways really need 20 aircraft to serve five cities? Even if they intend to expand drastically?
It also seemed strange to me that Pet Airways is proposing to start up with the Falcon 20, the Convair 580/5800, and the Boeing 727. That's three different aircraft types , which seems like it'd be expensive to operate. Southwest Airlines famously flies only Boeing 737s, which saves them lots of money because they can standardize things like pilot and mechanic training, stocking spare parts, operational procedures and the like. Why would Pet Airways want to start by flying a small jet, a large jet, and a turboprop? This was getting curiouser and curiouser.
As I was hunting for information, I was describing my search on Twitter and updating Twitter with what I found. Pet Airways noticed, replying "you can speculate that Pet Airways is a hoax all u want, but just wait and all your answers will all come in due time" and adding "if u would like more info follow us & all ur questions will be answered in the coming months as we will announce everything here." So someone was watching, they wouldn't tell me anything. (When Middle Seat asked them for more information, they didn't have anything to say then, either.) So Pet Airways knows that people are trying to find out more about them, but they're not talking. Now it was seeming less and less like a hoax -- or rather, making the case that if it was a hoax, it was certainly an incredibly elaborate one that someone went to an awful lot of trouble to put together -- but everything I found out sparked more questions. I asked Pet Airways why they were being so cryptic, and got the very similar response "I apologize for having to be so cryptic but when the time is right you will have all your answers, just be patient."
Pet Airways isn't taking reservations yet, but they do have a telephone number and a mailing address in Delray Beach, Florida. I Googled the mailing address, and it appears to be a UPS store in a shopping center -- one that offers mailboxes. A service I hadn't heard of called CorporationWiki popped up as one of the Google results, and offers a list of companies and people who use that address. Zeroing in on the box number ("Suite C2-264") used by Pet Airways showed that the box was shared by a company called Panther Air Cargo and by a person named Daniel Wiesel. Now we were getting somewhere.
Googling "Panther Air Cargo" led me to their much more bare-bones site, which describes them as "a specialty cargo carrier transporting unique products for a select client base", adding that their specialty "is in moving items that do not fit the usual parameters for the "big carriers, and/or require that extra special handling by experts in moving." Sounds like transporting pets cross-country, doesn't it? So is Pet Airways just a d/b/a for Panther Air Cargo? It was hard to tell. For one thing, Panther Air Cargo's fleet consists of Fairchild Metro III turboprops, not the Falcons, Convairs and Boeings listed on the Pet Airways site. Interestingly, Panther's list of locations includes terminals in every city slated for Pet Airways service. Also interestingly, I couldn't find an operating certificate for Panther either.
Incidentally, Panther Air Cargo's domain name is also registered by proxy through Network Solutions Private Registrations...and more interestingly, within 24 hours of my Twittering about Panther Air Cargo, the domain name pantheraircargo.com was redirected to the Pet Airways site. (Links here are to their hosting provider's account -- those might go away or be redirected as well, so I apologize in advance for any linkrot that may happen after I post this.)
I don't know much about the world of air cargo, but I thought it was interesting that Panther's site didn't list a phone number, just an e-mail address for "Dan." I'd be willing to wager that Daniel Wiesel of the P.O. box, Dan of "Dan & Alysa", the Pet Airways founders, and Dan of Panther Air Cargo are all the same person. (I then noticed that the Pet Airways "Endorsements" page listed Dan Wiesel and Alysa Binder as the co-founders of Pet Airways. Missed that the first time around.) So I then Googled the couple, and found that they operate a recruiting company, and put their Delray Beach home on the market in September. That home, incidentally, is less than a tenth of a mile from the UPS Store where their P.O. box is. Convenient, right?
So, the upshot: I don't think it's a hoax -- it's run by identifiable people, even if they took some steps (such as the domain registrations) to hide their personal information. It seems too elaborate to be a hoax, but to this untrained eye some of their business decisions seem odd or unusually secretive. I wish them the best, though -- in this economy, anyone trying to make money in the aviation business is definitely gutsy. I hope Pet Airways makes it. It's definitely an interesting idea to leverage an air-cargo business to appeal to a niche market of affluent consumers.
By the by, I'm posting all this in exhaustive detail here not to talk about Pet Airways specifically. What I found amazing was that I could become curious about something and uncover all of this information -- including bios of the principals involved and Street View pictures of their (possibly-former) house -- with about half an hour's worth of Web searching from my chair. It was enormously fun to to find this problem and try to figure out the answers. I wish my job included more of this kind of research...but I think it might be less fun if it's about things that I'm not personally curious about.
(oh, and the Hotelicopter? Gotta be a hoax.)