An African white rhinoceros peers through the bars of its Frankfurt compound, while across the floor a Madagascan chameleon inches around its vivarium and an Andean alpaca plucks hay from a bale. It’s not a scene from the city’s zoo but Deutsche Lufthansa’s (LHA:GR) Animal Lounge, a state-of-the-art complex at the center of the German airline’s plans to dominate one of the most specialized parts of the $66 billion air-cargo industry.
Lufthansa, Air France-KLM Group (AF:FP), and Dubai-based Emirates, which transports thoroughbreds for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, horse racing’s leading owner, are competing in a market that’s small (only about 1 percent of air cargo) yet lucrative. But the hefty fees come with the ever-present risk of an in-flight death involving a beloved family pet, top-ranked stallion, or priceless panda. “It’s not like [transporting] pharmaceuticals, where your main concern is the temperature,” says Animal Lounge Director Axel Heitmann, who has 24 veterinarians on his staff. “If a bag of fish leaks it needs replacing with the right kind of water and the right oxygen. And if something goes wrong you can’t just hand a customer $1,000 and tell him to buy another pet.”
Lufthansa’s Frankfurt facility transported 110 million creatures last year—that doesn’t include the 106 million human passengers carried by the airline and its units systemwide—though the total is distorted when taking into account 80 million tropical fish and 300 tons of worms.
Among its larger guests, the Cologne-based carrier’s annual passenger roster typically includes 14,000 dogs and cats, 8,000 pigs, 2,000 horses, and about 150 zoo animals. (So far this year the latter have included five rhinos, a pygmy hippo, half a dozen penguins, two pancake tortoises, and a pair of beavers.)
Lufthansa flies three horses from Frankfurt to New York for about $5,248 per beast. By contrast, it can cost as little as $880 to ship a conventional package of similar weight across the Atlantic. “This sort of niche business is more profitable than commoditized air cargo, but you need to invest a substantial amount in specialist facilities to get the returns,” says John Manners-Bell, an analyst at Transport Intelligence.
Emirates’ freight aircraft, for example, have been outfitted to maintain four different temperature zones in their holds, allowing them to carry a mixed load of, say, horses and penguins on the same flight. Cargo chief Ram Menen says Emirates’ equine flights have included one from Sydney, Australia, to Stewart International Airport in the Hudson Valley, home to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s New York Animal Import Center, which was the longest flown by Emirates at 18 hours, 15 minutes.
Using a Boeing (BA) 777 freighter, the service carried 16 horses for breeders, earning “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for the single run. There’s little room for error in such high-profile flights, however. Explains Menen: “The horses we move are worth more than the plane itself.”
The bigger the animal and more specialized its requirements, the more profitable the freight job, says Lufthansa’s Heitmann. Species such as tropical fish are fruitful on both counts, traveling in water heated to between 24C and 28C that the airline also charges to carry. The horses it carries travel standing up three to a container, strapped in on both sides “so they can’t get up to any funny business,” Heitmann says. Most are watched over, in-flight, by their grooms or attendants.
Lufthansa’s main markets include flying tropical fish from South America and Southeast Asia to buyers in Europe and North America as well as live fishing bait from Asia. It also handles horse exports from breeders in South America and Europe to the U.S. and Middle East (where some owners send their mounts to cooler climes each summer to escape blistering local temperatures).
At the most rarified end of the market, FedEx (FDX), the world’s No. 1 cargo airline, has been transporting giant pandas since 2000, when it brought a pair from China to Washington. The most recent trip saw two arrive at Edinburgh zoo aboard a “Panda Express”-liveried 777 on Dec. 4, with health checks performed every 30 minutes during the 10½-hour flight from Chengdu, China.
There are some creatures that airlines won’t handle. Animals caught in the wild are precluded unless permitted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which protects 35,000 animal and plant species, says Menen. Also, large fish and cetaceans such as dolphins are not carried by Lufthansa because the volume of water required could destabilize the plane or flood it in the event of a leak, according to Heitmann—though Cargolux Airlines International, Europe’s No. 1 freight-only operator, will transport killer whales.
Despite the premise of the Samuel L. Jackson film, poisonous reptiles are also ruled out for air transport because of the risk of escape. “It’s not worth it,” Heitmann says. “It would be a nightmare to find you only had five of an original six poisonous snakes, and that one might be in the passenger cabin. You’d have to gas the plane if you couldn’t find it.”