It’s Superbowl Sunday and the New England Patriots will soon take on the Atlanta Falcons in the most-watched American football game of the year. Falcons made headlines of a different sort last week when a Saudi prince boarded 80 of the birds onto a commercial flight, each in its own seat. The few spaces not taken by a bird were occupied by humans, one of whom snapped the scene and posted it on social media.
It’s not readily apparent which airline transported the birds, but several Gulf state carriers do allow falcons in their cabins as a concession to their two-legged passengers who are passionate about falconry, a popular sport among the the privileged class in the Middle East. Seasoned falconers commonly train multiple birds at once, much like nuturing a stable of fine race horses. The birds travel with their owners for racing and hunting events.
In 2013, Gulf News reported that over 28,000 falcons had received passports since 2002 as part of an effort to combat the illegal trade of the birds. Travel is restricted to nine nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are hubs for the ancient and gentlemanly sport.
Qatar Airways permits up to six birds on board. Etihad and Emirates allow birds on board, as does Royal Jordanian on limited occasions, provided they sit in economy class, be secured to their seat with a cord or chain, and carry valid health certificates. In every instance, each bird must be hooded, and carry a pet passport. The airlines provide protective covers for the seat upholstery. In every instance, these airlines allow more falcons in their cabins than they do dogs or cats.
Though 80 birds on one plane is unusual, the human travellers appear nonplussed. Modern day flying really is for the birds.