The Birds Who Fly First Class

If you’re flying on Qatar Airways and want to bring your cat with you, good news! You can — provided you’re comfortable checking the cat with the luggage. Per the company’s website, “Qatar Airways accepts domesticated dogs, cats, and birds as checked baggage, either on your flight or on a separate one, in accordance with international air travel regulations.” And Qatar Airways isn’t unique here — almost all airlines will offer the same pet transportation options. With the exception of service dogs, non-human animals can travel on your flight but aren’t allowed in the cabin with the rest of the passengers.

Oh, and this — via this reddit thread from 2017 — may also happen:

Yep, those are falcons, wearing hats. And they’re either on a trip from the Persian Gulf region or on their way back home.

As the Christian Science Monitor explains, falconry is deeply rooted in Gulf culture: “long before natural gas and oil discoveries in the 1950s transformed the United Arab Emirates into an economic powerhouse of skyscrapers and tech firms, it was an eat-what-you-catch way of life for the region’s nomadic Bedouin inhabitants. But the Bedouin had a secret weapon, equipped with basic desert tools and instincts, that could make or break a winter’s hunt: the falcon.” Over the decades since, falconry has pivoted from a survival skill to a status symbol in the region; a golden falcon, for example, is the prominent symbol on the emblem of the United Arab Emirates. Today, falcons are particularly common as pets throughout the Gulf region, and the animals sell for between $500 and $20,000, according to CNN.

At that price point, you can understand why many falcon owners do not want their birds flying with someone’s checked luggage. So at some point, the regional airlines began allowing falcons aboard in the main cabin. Today, Qatar Airways allows economy-class ticket holders to carry on one falcon per person, provided that fewer than five others are doing the same per the website linked above. Per, Emirates has a similar policy, while Eritad is a little more falcon-friendly — one falcon per seat is permitted (for an additional fee) and, if you want to bring two birds, that’s not a problem: “one additional falcon can be carried when an extra seat is purchased within same class.”

To prevent the birds from bothering the other passengers, they are typically outfitted with eye masks, as seen in the image above. As one expert told CNN, being birds of prey, “when they see (something) they have to go and get it,” so the headwear helps prevent the bird from flying around the cabin. On landing, the drop in altitude and change in cabin pressure can cause the birds to star flapping their wings, but in general, they tend to stay put.

And to ensure that the birds are in good health — both for the benefit of the passengers and the birds themselves —  the birds have their own passports. In 2002, UAE created a formal Falcon Passport Program designed to provide the birds with documentation, articulating “the bird’s country of origin, permit number and the date of its last export or import,” according to Gulf News. As of 2013, UAE had issued 28,000 such passports, and likely many more since. The passports are good for three years, according to Business Insider.

So if you board a flight and find yourself sitting next to a bird or two, don’t be too concerned. Just make sure they’re wearing their special hat and, if you’re doubly concerned, you may want to ask a flight attendant to double-check their passport. And if you see a lot of falcons, like the one in the picture above, double-check your own ticket — you are almost certainly on a charter jet, as none of the commercial airlines will allow that many birds aboard at the same time.

Bonus fact: There are about 2.7 million people living in Qatar, but if you visit there, don’t expect to talk with a lot of actual Qatari citizens. As of 2019, only 10% of the country are citizens — and that number is decreasing. As of 1970, Qatar citizens have been a minority in their own country, at 40% citizens to 60% non-citizens at the time. 

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