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How Puppies Are Propping Up the Private-Jet Market


Puppies need private planes, too—even more than the rest of us, in fact. That’s the marketing message of late from companies selling private-plane shares and charters.

Pull up NetJets.com, the site for the company that lets travelers buy or lease part of a plane, and you won’t see a square-jawed businessman crunching through a spreadsheet at 30,000-feet; you’ll see a young boy in an opulent leather seat, curled around a yellow Lab puppy, with both sleeping soundly. It’s a fairly adorable picture that makes a weary traveler want to run out and buy one—a puppy, that is, plus a cozy Gulfstream (GD) for it to sleep in.

Last year, NetJets, a unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/B), flew 14,400 animals on almost 10,000 flights, according to the site.

Flexjet, the No. 2 company in the jet-share game, is not to be outdone on the fur front. In one shot, its website has Fido running aboard a plane, followed by a family decked out in ski gear. On another page, the clan’s purported patriarch gazes out the window like a young Chuck Yeager while his alert pooch perches in his lap with a scarf wrapped around his neck—a gosh-darned scarf.

The marketing message here could not be more clear: “We get it. Your pets are part of the family. (You even dress them up like weird uncles.)”

Ridiculous photos aside, the strategy is a savvy one. Over the years, large commercial airlines have done a spectacularly poor job of catering to consumers with pets. Fears of frozen dogs and ensuing lawsuits have typically trumped a fairly massive market potential. Some 43.3 million U.S. households have at least one dog running around in them, according to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

Delta (DAL) gives the dog business a shot, but the list of restrictions and rules is lengthy, and the prices are steep. It won’t ship “pug-nosed” creatures (sorry French bulldogs), and it refuses to put pets on any routes flown by a Boeing (BA) 767 or an Airbus (EAD:FP) 330-200.

United Continental (UAL) has a similarly long list of no-nos, including a ban on very young puppies and, oddly, piglets less than eight weeks old.

Southwest (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU), meanwhile, let passengers carry on small dogs, but won’t check larger animals in the cargo area.

However, the dog-focused marketing of the private-jet sharing industry has an important subtext: “Private planes aren’t just for business trips.”

The industry took a beating in 2008 and 2009 as recession grounded demand from business travelers. In 2009, NetJets posted a $711 million loss before climbing to a $207 million gain the next year.

That kind of turbulence is part of the reason Bombardier (BBD/B:CN) recently got out of the fractional-jet business. In September, it sold Flexjet to a unit of Directional Aviation Capital, an Ohio-based investment firm. Directional, meanwhile, seems certain its dog-based diversification play will round up well-heeled customers. When it bought the business, it put in an order for 85 new planes.

Kyle-stock-190
Stock is an associate editor for Businessweek.com. Twitter: @kylestock

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