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Embarking for Britain gets easier

Virgin Atlantic Airways has gotten approval from the British government to allow regular travel for cats and dogs on flights from Los Angeles to London’s Heathrow Airport as part of its Pet Travel Scheme.
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Does Fido long to chase the guards at Buckingham Palace? Would Tinkerbell like to turn up her nose at some clotted cream? They’ll soon have their chance: The first scheduled transatlantic flights to bring U.S. dogs and cats to enter England will begin this month.

Virgin Atlantic Airways has gotten approval from the British government to allow regular travel for cats and dogs on flights from Los Angeles to London’s Heathrow Airport. The flights, part of a three-month trial, will begin May 19 under Britain’s Pet Travel Scheme, or PETS. If it works, Virgin plans to extend the service to all its U.S. routes, and eventually to other countries as well — though they have high hopes for the L.A. service.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest market,” said Karen Kerslake, marketing and public relations manager for Virgin Atlantic Cargo. “I think it’s the rich and famous people who tend to travel with their animals.”

Actually, the PETS program has been around since February 2000, but this is the first time regularly scheduled service from the United States will allow owners to bring their pets directly into the country. Previously, dogs and cats were required to stay in quarantine for six months upon entering the United Kingdom, mostly to ensure they were free of rabies. PETS reversed that — allowing owners to begin the six-month process while their animals were still at home under what British authorities described as a “pet passport.” According to Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which manages the program, to get a pet passport, your cherished creature must get a rabies vaccine and an implanted idenfication microchip, and then have a blood test prior to travel. Once that is completed, though, the passport is good for repeated travel in and out of Britain.

However, Puppy or Kitty must fly on a route approved by Defra, and the airline must have equipment and staff on hand to check the microchip and vaccination paperwork, and to manage sealed pet travel crates.

“On average, 250 cats and dogs travel to the U.K. from the U.S. each month and I hope that we will see this figure double as more airlines sign up,” said Virgin founder and chairman Richard Branson in a statement.

Animal lovers in other countries, including Australia and much of Europe, already have PETS programs. Air Canada was approved for the program in March, and Canadians’ furry friends can travel from a number of cities — including Toronto and Vancouver — into London. While Britannia Airways’ cargo service had allowed pets on its charter flights from Sanford, Fla., to London’s Gatwick Airport since earlier this year, regular airline service from the United States hasn’t been available until now. United Airlines showed interest in offering service, but abandoned its plans as its financial problems mounted.

99 years of quarantine
While American pets have long been allowed into many countries, including much of Europe, Merry Ol’ England frowned on the practice — and not just for U.S. critters, but for any foreigner with fur. A 1901 quarantine barred domestic animals from entry until the 2000 law was enacted, with no exceptions. For example, the family of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, had to leave their pets in France for a lengthy stay to skirt the quarantine after he retired his post in 1997. Their two dogs, Whisky and Soda, didn’t rejoin the family until 2000.

InsertArt(1893764)But with consistent pressure from pet owners and the lobbying group Passports for Pets, run by pet activist Lady Mary Fretwell, the quarantine has slowly been lifted on a country-by-country basis. Meantime, Passports for Pets ran ads decrying conditions in the quarantine kennels and operated foster programs that allowed pets to stay in Europe, awaiting their ability to enter the U.K.

She had some big-name backers whose hackles were raised by the old process: Liz Hurley joined in the campaign after her Alsatian, Nico, died in quarantine. Liz Taylor, who once docked her dogs on a yacht in the Thames to cirvcumvent the law, told the BBC she stayed away for years because she couldn’t have her beloved Maltese, Sugar, at her side. Even Bill Clinton reportedly snarled at news he would have to leave Buddy at home.

No lap dogs
While the service throws U.S. pets a bone, the process remains elaborate and regulations will almost certainly keep pets in cargo holds for the entire flight, which can last 10 hours. Whether you’re a champagne-sipping movie star or curled up back in coach, you’ll be making the flight without your pal on your lap — which might not sit well with some owners.

“Honestly, I would think there are a lot of people, if they were going on a vacation, who would see a drawback of having their dog in cargo,” said Tara Kain, founder of, which gives canine travel advice. “It’s not something you would do going on a vacation. It’s probably something you would consider if you were moving.”

Before you plan a vacation with Rover, you might want to know that Virgin expects to charge an average fare of about $288, which it will sell through its cargo division. Passengers will drop off their pet at a cargo facility, where paperwork and the microchip can be checked. If all is in order, critters go in a special container with space for food and water. They’re put in the bulk hold at the rear of the aircraft, which is the last area to close and is temperature-controlled.

After the initial waiting period to ensure animals qualify for the pet passport, flights can be booked last minute. Virgin even hopes to extend its frequent-flier program, offering extra perks to dogs and cats who earn their wings. “There’ll be special ‘Bone-us Miles’ for the dogs and a ‘Frequent Feline’ club for the cats,” Branson said in his statement.

There’s one set of travelers who may be especially happy about the new service: U.S. embassy employees. Many staff have been forced to send their pets to third countries to wait out the quarantine. Said a Defra spokeswoman: “A lot of them said their animals had come over and gone to Germany for six months.”

That might be why William Farish, U.S. ambassador to Britain, looked so pleased when he announced the change in quarantine rules last December: He and his wife had hoped to use the new rules to travel home and back with their bichon frisé, Katie.

Previously, by one report, he also had to send his dog to France for six months to wait for entry to Britain. Given current relations between Washington and Paris, that might no longer be an option.