Animal Kingdom: Carriers vie for lucrative animal transport niche

A group of very important guests were transported on flight QR 8197 from Amsterdam-Schiphol to Las Vegas via Qatar Airways this past April. A 777-200 freighter was reserved for just 40 well-pampered passengers from 17 different countries, who flew “first class,” so to speak, on the 11-hour, 20-minute flight. The combined net worth of these clients was about US$160 million. As rich as they were, they did little more on the flight than eat and sleep, with an inflight dining menu of 120 pre-packed haynets, water, oat bran for mash, mixed feed, apples and carrots.

Technically, these passengers would be considered “cargo” since they were not human but equine in nature, including 24 geldings, nine stallions, and seven mares. Of these champions, 24 were jumping horses and 14 were for the sport of dressage. Their destination was the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Cup Finals. Flight QR 8197 was arranged by the Dutta Corporation, an international horse transport specialist, based in North Salem, N.Y. Tim Dutta, owner of the company, which he established in 1988, said the brand-new 777 was full. The horses filled the upper deck (22 pallets) and the belly contained 10 pallets containing 25,000 pounds of gear, including head collars, ropes, blankets, boots, bandages, toys and earplugs.

En route to Las Vegas, the horses were not the only passengers on board. They were attended to by 10 professional grooms and a veterinarian. Each horse was given one-and-a-half stalls, giving them plenty of room. Once they arrived, the horses were quarantined for 42 hours, and they all were declared healthy. The horses traveled with international health papers and passports, which are micro-chipped in their necks.

“I’ve got the very best team behind me,” Dutta said. “We wouldn’t get that kind of a gig if we didn’t know what we were doing.” The gig itself – the commercial transport of high-value animals – is a growing niche in the air cargo world.

Most companies that handle large animals and livestock as airfreight are privately held and closely guarded, so the size of the market is hard to pin down. But every expert who spoke with Air Cargo World said it is a growing, high-value business. For instance, Charlie McMullen, global sales and development manager with U.K.-based Intradco Global Animal Transport, said charters can run anywhere from $80,000 to $500,000, depending on the route and number of animals. He once had two horses onboard with a combined value of £56 million, or roughly US$86 million.

According to U.S.-based equine experts H.E. Sutton Forwarding, an average load will have a combined value of anywhere from $50 million to $500 million.

Fast, safe and humane

Owners of these extremely valuable horses are increasingly choosing to move their animals via air because high-stakes horse races are intercontinental. By using a specialist in the field, they can transport the horses quickly and safely without stressing out the animal. Thoroughbreds, which are used for racing, have an average value of $90,000, but that can be influenced by the purse money it wins. A quarter-horse can range from as little as $1 up to thousands of dollars, depending on its bloodlines, color, age, sex, training or height. A horse is a considerable investment by its owner, so its welfare is of the utmost importance. Turning to an expert to transport the animal is the best solution.

One of these companies is IRT. With offices in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, IRT has been in business since 1972, and focuses only on transporting horses – although it did move two zebras in April. IRT claims to have an average of one horse in transit every hour of the day, but Ian Jory, the West Coast operations manager, said it’s usually more. Jory said the company originally transported only racehorses, but now they carry warm bloods (jumping horses), quarter-horses (for Western events and rodeos), polo ponies, miniature horses and horses that are just family pets. He said there are about six companies in the Los Angeles area, where he is based, that ship horses. IRT doesn’t own its own aircraft; rather, it charters with carriers such as FedEx, KLM (in combination aircraft, with people in the front and horses in the back), Cargolux, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Lufthansa, Korean Air and Malaysia Airlines.

To ship a horse with IRT domestically in the contiguous U.S., the cost is $3,900, assuming there are two other horses onboard. This is because they are transported in a ULD specifically built for horses, called an HMA, which is divided into three stalls. If a horse owner absolutely has to move one horse, then the price triples. For Alaska or Hawaii, it’s $200 more. Shipping a horse abroad is $7,500 per horse, regardless how many there are. This includes quarantine procedures, which are not required on the domestic flights or flights to Canada.

Like IRT, H.E. Sutton Forwarding carries horses exclusively. But one key difference is the ride that it provides. For the last six years, H.E. Sutton has ACMI-leased a 727-200 freighter aircraft from Kalitta Charters II. Appropriately, it’s been dubbed “Air Horse One.”

H.E. Sutton was founded in the horse-racing nerve center of Kentucky in 1957 by horse lover Halford Ewel “Tex” Sutton. Operations manager Mike Payne said the company mainly operates domestically, but it also makes trips to Calgary and Mexico. Depending on the length of the journey, transporting a horse with H.E. Sutton will cost $3,250 to $4,950, depending on the route, duration, distance and landing fees. “Tex started with railroad cars in the ’50s and the next thing you know it evolved into air,” Payne said. He said 65 to 70 percent of the horses they carry are thoroughbreds, with the balance consisting of dressage, jumpers and hunter jumpers.

With a base in Lexington, H.E. Sutton is deeply involved with the Kentucky Derby. Rob Clark, the owner and president of H.E. Sutton, bought the company in 1997, but he has known Tex Sutton since he was 4-years-old. Sutton is gone now, but Clark is carrying on in his tradition.

H.E. Sutton is very busy in the time frame surrounding the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby, which was May 2 this year. “It’s a huge two-days for big stakes horse racing,” Clark said. He said there are several prep races leading up to the derby, so the company brought in horses far ahead of the derby to right before race day. Most exciting, this year’s top three finishers – American Pharoah, followed by Firing Line and Dortmund – all came in on “Air Horse One.” American Pharoah had been in a race in Arkansas before the Derby, so he traveled from California to Arkansas, then Tennessee on the aircraft. “The weather was perfect,” Clark said of race day. “Mid-70s and perfectly sunny.”

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