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At Virgin Atlantic, our primary goal is for our passengers to feel safe and relaxed when they fly with us. Here at the airline we absolutely love to fly, but we understand that for some people, getting on a plane can be a challenge.
Over the years, we've helped thousands of people overcome their anxieties through our pioneering Flying Without Fear programme, but nevertheless we do still carry nervous flyers on a regular basis and we've been looking for extra ways to make them feel more at ease.
Today, we're delighted to announce a brand new and groundbreaking scheme which we believe is a worldwide first in onboard passenger care.
Over the next six months we will be rolling out Virgin PetTherapy™ on a select number of flights; a completely unique and innovative new service for our nervous flyers, which will see a five-strong crew of elite kittens and puppies take to the skies in a purely therapeutic role.
The benefits of pet therapy are long-established. Many scientific studies have shown that stroking a cat or dog in times of anxiety can have a dramatic impact on heart rate, blood pressure and levels of unease, as well as providing a positive distraction during peak moments of stress.
Takeoff, landing and intermittent periods of turbulence have always presented the biggest challenge for nervous passengers, and these are the times that our four-legged crew come into their own.
Services offered include the Comfort Blanket, where our specially-trained Flight Pets will curl up on your lap for takeoff and landing and the Turbulence Consoler, where one of our puppies will sit by your side and rest its head on your knee, every so often raising a quizzical eyebrow to check that you're ok.
What does it take to be a Flight Pet?
Over the past few months, our Animal Engagement team have hunted high and low for the extra special cats and dogs that will make up our first ever Flight Pet team, and in January this year we whittled down hundreds of applicants to a small crack team of five.
As with our regular cabin crew, we looked for well-groomed pets with a great personality and caring nature, who instinctively understood how to deliver the best possible Virgin experience.
Since then, they have been undergoing intensive training at our Cabin Crew training facility near Gatwick Airport alongside their fellow (human) recruits.
Chief Pet Recruiter Donald Gillespie said: "Our Flight Pets have been through an amazing transformation over the past six weeks. At first all they wanted to do was zoom up and down the aisles, and once they discovered the escape slide it was very hard to get them to do anything else. But they soon buckled down, and have learned everything there is to know about onboard safety and delivering brilliant customer service, as well as ensuring our nervous passengers receive a comforting paw of support."
Despite the shaky start, earlier this month all five Pets received their Wings after passing their final exams with flying colours.
Who are our Flight Pets?
Our very special team is headed up by golden tabby Betty, 5 years old, who is an expert at detecting which passengers are in need of some support. She is ably assisted by kittens Doris and Blu, and puppies Nelly and Bunk.
Virgin's Pet Trainer Maggie Marwood commented: "I'm so proud of what our pets have achieved over the past five weeks, and it's been wonderful watching them mature into the role. Blu has completely overcome his fear of heights and Nelly and Bunk have learned not to beg for our passengers' leftovers - an incredible achievement."
"We did have one or two incidents with Doris who unfortunately received a formal warning after passing out behind the Upper Class bar on a test flight, but all five are now completely focused on their roles as inflight therapists, and we're really excited to have them onboard."
What do our passengers think?
As part of our Flight Pets' final exams, they were required to operate on a small number of flights to ensure their new found skills were fully up to scratch. These flights contained genuine passengers who couldn't speak more highly of our new crew.
Louise Hargreaves, 39, a nervous flyer from Wolverhampton was thrilled with her cuddle from Blu. "Blu was a little star!" she said. "He curled up on my lap and purred like a traction engine from the moment the seatbelt signs went on right up until the moment we landed and taxied up to the gate in New York. I normally get very worried as the plane makes its descent, but this time I was completely calm."
Our Flight Pets will be going into service today, Sunday 1st April 2012, and will initially be operating on our routes between London and Tokyo, New York and Barbados. More routes will be added later in the year.
If the initial period is a success, we anticipate that we will be recruiting for five more Flight Pets in the summer. If you would like your pet to be considered, please do leave a comment below.
For the best fares on flights to all our fantastic worldwide destinations, visit www.virginatlantic.com.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.