When Pigs Fly, They Want Drinks, Leg Room

Date: Wednesday, November 11, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

When pigs fly—and they are doing so a lot this year—they usually take Boeing or Airbus wide-body jets across the world.

One of the few bright spots for a global airline industry ravaged by Covid-19 has been an increase in live animal cargo flights. Cargo planes this year have taken thousands of pigs, goats, alpacas, cats and dogs on international flights, and livestock handlers say demand for the fastest mode of animal transportation is rising even as many human passengers shun traveling by plane.

Hundreds of pigs can travel on each cargo flight, with groups in large wooden crates roomy enough for them to move around in, and that fit nicely in Boeing 777s and 747s, or Airbus A330 aircraft.

Other than the flight crew, the only other humans aboard are the animals’ handlers. They keep an eye on the pigs’ mood, fill up their water sipper bottles and “give them a little bit of encouragement,” said Charlie McMullen, director of animal cargo specialist Intradco Global.

That interaction has consequences. “You can’t get the smell out of your clothes, you have to bin them,” said Zac Carroll, an animal handler and groom with Intradco.

In Chicago, at the cargo terminal at O’Hare, the hogs typically are loaded during predawn hours, when the air is cooler.

“They are really heavy breathers,” said Jerry Chavez, a former cargo manager at a commercial airline who is now executive director overseeing U.S. operations at AirBridgeCargo Airlines, a company that transports a lot of what it calls “special cargo,” including live animals and vaccines. All that hot air can create humidity, which can damage the electrical parts of the plane.

“They’re clean animals, but they leave a mess,” Mr. Chavez added. “The stalls are built so nothing leaks out of them, but Murphy’s Law is what can happen will happen.”

China has been buying lots of pigs abroad after losing many of its own hogs to African swine fever. China is expected to import 25,000 live hogs from around the world in 2020, compared with 4,000 in 2019, the Agriculture Department said. Many of those will fly.

Qatar Airways has added 50% more livestock flights this year in response to higher demand. On a typical day, the airline transports 10 horses and 500 farm animals, including cows, goats and sheep.

More cats and dogs are also traveling during the pandemic, often in the cargo holds of regular passenger flights, because the number of expatriate families returning to their home countries from all over the world has increased.

Many of the pets moving from Asia and the Middle East back to the U.S. and other countries transit at the Doha airport, where the dogs get a break to run around in a yard stocked with the airline’s dog toys.

Qatar Airways recently began taking photos of the dogs and cats coming through and emailing their owners with the message “Greetings from Doha,” said Chief Officer Cargo Guillaume Halleux.

“People keep sending us thank you messages,” he said.

Some animal flights haven’t panned out. Earlier this year, a Qatar Airways flight to Johannesburg to pick up some young giraffes destined for a zoo was forced to return empty. In the roughly six weeks it had taken to get all the paperwork sorted before the flight, the giraffes had grown too tall for the crates they were supposed to travel in, Mr. Halleux said. Adult giraffes can be about 18 feet tall—but Qatar Airways is only able to load young giraffes under about 10 feet, “otherwise they bump their heads,” said Mr. Halleux.

Pigs grow quickly, too. Earlier this year, 1,300 young hogs that were scheduled to be flown from the U.S. to the Philippines to stock a farm were bumped when their plane was requisitioned by the U.S. government to move personal protective equipment, said Mike Van Schepdael, vice president of Canadian-headquartered pig-breeding company Genesus Inc.

A new flight was secured 2½ months later, but the original young hogs had become older hogs, and much bigger—too heavy for the 85 tons the plane could handle.

A new set of young pigs was shipped, Mr. Van Schepdael said. The wait “was frustrating for the buyer,” he said. The cost of the flight—not including the price of the hogs: $485,000. The cargo itself cost close to $4 million.

Pandemic border controls have made things tricky for crew members. Workers on flights to China have had to immediately get back on the planes and leave the country after unloading their cargo, according to Mr. McMullen, the Intradco director.

Livestock flights from Europe to China are often stopping in places such as Kazakhstan or eastern Russia to swap crews who can fly, unload the animals, and return to another country within the number of hours the crew can legally work, he said.

Last month, three horse grooms flew with 31 horses from Mauritius to Belgium. To get to the pickup point, the animal handlers had take a 28-hour trip, first on freighter aircraft from France to the Middle East, and then to South Africa before arriving in Mauritius, due to border closures and their inability to go directly to the island nation on a passenger plane, according to Mr. McMullen.

The “flying grooms” are like the animals’ flight attendants, Mr. McMullen said. “Horses require hour-to-hour care and interaction during flights,” he said, and they need to be kept happy throughout the journey, just like humans.

The company was worried about two extremely large stallions getting loaded into the special horse stalls that are then loaded onto the planes—an odd situation that can make them panic.

They also needed to be separated from the female horses, far enough away so they couldn’t smell them. “Otherwise they might get frisky,” Mr. Carroll, the Intradco groom, said.

Mr. Carroll’s favorite passengers: elephants.

“Last time I did an elephant flight, it was only a five-hour flight, and I think I fed them all [their hundreds of pounds of food] by myself,” he said. “I got so engrossed in feeding these animals. It was amazing.”

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