A $65 Million Bet on Pampered Pet Travel
Airline travel for pets is highly regulated, just as it is for humans. The biggest difference is that the rules for pets are intended to make air travel more comfortable, not less. One recent mandate requires that airports have indoor pet “relief areas.”
Yet, at a time when 80 percent of pet owners refer to their animals as children, there’s still vast room for improvement, both in-flight and on the ground. The Ark at JFK, a new, $65 million facility in a 178,000-square-foot warehouse, is one step toward improving the latter experience. It will have a splash pool, overnight kennels, and pre-flight micro-chipping services to track your animals. Eventually, this first-of-its-kind service in the U.S. will feature an in-house pet spa, too.
In an important respect, the Ark is streamlining the process of pet travel, rather than revolutionizing it. Its two main services for dogs—shepherding the animals through customs and boarding and caring for them during layovers, when necessary—already exist, just in a less-efficient form.
“It can be one of those close calls, where a pet owner can get off a flight, get to the cargo facility, go to customs and border control, and do it all themselves,” said Elizabeth A. Schuette, the managing director of the Ark. (Her husband, John J. Cuticelli Jr., is the project’s developer.) “It’s a big hassle.”
The Ark, on the other hand, positions itself as a one-stop shop: “We can clear customs on behalf of the owners, or use a custom broker,” Schuette said. “It’s changing the process and advocating for a better one.”
Except for a few, high-profile cases, pets have managed to survive layovers just fine. Most airlines have designated areas for pets, known in the industry as AVI (an abbreviation of the French phrase animaux vivant, or live animals). But Schuette highlighted some room for improvement: Animals from exotic countries are not usually quarantined when they travel as excess baggage, for example.
“They are often not bio-secure,” Schuette added. “And sometimes the airline charges a facility fee that can be up to $75.”
Because the Ark will at first be creating its own market, Schuette said, its prices are fairly reasonable.
“For the Pet Oasis, the basic accommodation fee is $125,” she said, which is about the amount charged by a regular kennel in Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s on the lower side” of the price range, Schuette explained, “because we’re just opening and trying to attract business.”
Once the Ark takes off, though, it will follow an existing business model. At a similar facility in Frankfurt, Lufthansa Group has a Cargo Animal Lounge, where it says it “welcomes around 110 million passengers per year,” including 14,000 dogs and cats and 2,000 horses. The Ark at JFK's equine component will have stables for importing and exporting racehorses, show horses, and polo ponies, all of which follow relatively predictable schedules. This is expected to “be bringing in the economic revenue,” Schuette said.
In addition to the Pet Oasis, an Equine & Livestock Export Center and an Aviary In-Transit Quarantine have both just opened; a full-service import-export center for horses, as well as an Ark aviary, will be ready in a few months. Here, pets will be fully groomed, tucked in to bed, and allowed to share photos or FaceTime with their owners.
Notwithstanding its more elaborate amenities, Schuette is hoping to convince both pet owners and airlines that the Ark offers a reasonable service, rather than an extravagant one. “We’re going to these airlines and meeting with them,” she said, “and talking to them about what’s the best treatment for these animals.”