Archive for Sunday, September 12, 2004

Company tries to make skies friendlier for pets

September 12, 2004

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Anyone who has ever taken a pet on a commercial flight knows that the experience can be stressful for both human and animal. Relegated to the cargo compartment, larger pets are separated from owners and are often confused and frightened by the experience of flying. Unable to comfort their pets, owners can also feel anxious.

Rick and Diana Roof want to change all this.

Their new company, Companion Air, is a small airline built around the needs of pet owners who want their companions to fly with them in safety, comfort and style. Many animal lovers see the airline as an idea whose time has come.

In 2000, Rick Roof was working for ImproveNet, a large dot-com startup hoping to link homeowners with qualified builders and contractors. Roof's duties as senior vice president required him to divide his time between his South Florida home and temporary lodging in California. A commercially rated pilot, Roof chose to make the trips in his own Piper Arrow four-seater, with Diana and their dog Murphy traveling along. Taking commercial flights would have been faster and easier, but neither Rick nor Diana liked the idea of treating Murphy as cargo.

"The airlines are really designed around transporting people," says Rick Roof. "They do offer transportation of animals, (but) I don't feel comfortable with that."

The Roofs' feelings for their dog are so strong that when they experienced temporary troubles with their plane, they chose to drive cross-country rather than put Murphy on a commercial flight. They wondered if other pet owners felt the same way, and began to think there might be a market for a truly pet-friendly airline, where animals could fly in the cabin, rather than in cargo.

In the spring of 2000, ImproveNet began to downsize along with hundreds of other dot-com. After Roof left his position, he and his wife began moving forward with business models for what would become Companion Air (www.companionair.com). The basic plan was to create an airline of small, new-generation aircraft, crewed by pet-friendly employees, to fly pets and owners.

"I never imagined it would be as challenging as it was," says Roof.

After testing their ideas and business models with industry experts, the Roofs began to identify the steps they would have to take to prepare for a first flight.

"It was really pretty massive," says Roof, "ranging from the obvious things like a Web site and reservations system to working through all the FAA steps of creating an airline."

The two plunged through the red tape and, in April 2003, received a Federal Aviation Administration air-carrier certificate recognizing Companion Air as an approved commercial operator.

One aspect that Roof had expected to be difficult actually turned out to be surprisingly easy: publicity. The Roofs set up a Web site early on, primarily to get information to potential investors. But once word of the business leaked out to the general public, the response was immediate and overwhelming. "We ended up with about 10,000 people signed up for our newsletter," says Roof.

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