Virgin Australia’s announcement that it will allow small cats and dogs to fly at passengers’ feet may have triggered excitement among pet lovers eager for the future service, but there’s plenty of detail yet to be worked out – including one big elephant in the cabin.

In what will be an Australian first, Virgin have said they hope to launch the offering within 12 months, noting they will work out many of the finer details of the service as they say they need to wait for regulatory approval.

In the absence of such details, there’s no doubt plenty of travellers alarmed at the announcement will be thinking twice about booking a future flight with the airline until it becomes clear how it will deal with certain animal-related concerns.

After all, animals running loose on planes have had alarming and sometimes fatal consequences. In 2010, a small plane running short domestic routes in the Democratic Republic of Congo plummeted to the ground in a crash that killed 20 people, with the sole survivor later reporting the incident occurred after a crocodile ran loose on the aircraft.

Here’s everything we know about how Virgin Australia’s pets in the cabin scheme will work.

Which pets will be allowed?

Virgin Australia has said the pets in cabin service will be “limited to small cats and dogs”.

The airline hasn’t specified what “small” means.

Carriers in the United States that already have such schemes in places restrict certain breeds.

Will we be able to just walk (small) pets on to the plane?

No. The rules here have been strictly set out.

Pets must be carried in a Virgin Australia-approved pet carrier and placed under the seat in front of the owner for the duration of the flight. Taller travellers who already struggle with legroom may find it challenging.

So I can’t show off my beloved Rover to my fellow passengers?

Nope. In fact, only certain rows of seats on certain domestic flights will be eligible for pet owners wanting to use the service.

There is to be no sitting in laps, walking of pets down the aisles or taking them to the bathroom.

Then what happens if Rover needs to do his business mid-air?

This may be the question on everybody’s mind, but Virgin Australia have not yet been forthcoming with an answer. It’s understood they’re still figuring out the finer details of the scheme.

Moisture-absorbent mats have been used for animal droppings from service animals – which are already allowed in plane cabins.

What’s stopping this from turning plane cabins into feeling like a zoo?

It’s unclear what Virgin Australia’s plan is in the event of a barking fit, or what is to be done with a particularly odorous pets.

Will Virgin Australia really be allowed to do this?

There don’t appear to be any laws stopping any airline from allowing pets in cabins. In fact, Virgin’s expectation of needing regulatory approval could even be overly cautious.

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In 2021, Australia’s air regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (Casa), changed its rules so that airlines no longer require its explicit permission to carry animals. Pilots and airlines now have discretion, so long as its safe.

“They must consider how to restrain animals, effects on other passengers, not blocking exit rows, dealing with droppings/urine. The procedures for pets would be added to their operations manuals,” a Casa spokesperson said in 2021.

On Thursday, Casa released a statement: “The regulation places the responsibility on the operator and pilot in command of the aircraft for ensuring the safety of the flight when an animal is carried on an aircraft.”

A 2021 Virgin Australia survey found respondents overwhelming in favour of allowing pets in plane cabins. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Why is Virgin Australia doing this now?

Because Australians want it as an option, the airline said.

Virgin Australia said that in a survey of its Facebook followers from 2021, 85% of respondents voted in favour of the airline launching pets in cabin flights.

In more recent research conducted by Virgin Australia with Australian pet owners, nearly 70% of respondents advised they would travel with their pet in the cabin, with 57% saying they would fly more regularly if the service was a reality.

In the increasingly tough battle to dent the dominance of Qantas (and its budget carrier Jetstar), which controls more than 60% of the domestic market, allowing pets in flight is one way for Virgin to set itself apart.

Currently, passengers can only fly with assistance animals in cabins on Australian airlines, and only if they require them. All other pets must fly in cargo holds. Airlines around the world, including Qantas, have faced criticism after animals travelling in the bellies of their planes died in transit.

The announcement also brings a positive story for Virgin Australia after the unexpected announcement their CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, would be stepping down. The abrupt resignation led to media reports that she was axed by the airline’s private equity owners, Bain Capital, suggesting they were unhappy with her performance in the lead-up to the carrier’s much hyped re-listing on the stock exchange.

How have pets fares in cabins overseas?

In many overseas jurisdictions pets have been able to be carried in cabins for a fee for some time, with everything from pigs, miniature horses and ducks spotted on flights in the past.

The US has long allowed people to fly with emotional support animals as long as airlines allow it. Passengers have tried to bring a diverse range of creatures on board over the years as they tested the parameters of the rules.

In 2018, a woman was prevented from bringing a peacock on board a United Airlines flight, despite its owner being willing to pay an additional fare for her feathered friend.

But the scores of requests for unusual support animals eventually led the US transport department to ban all animals except dogs as service or emotional support animals in December 2020. Non-service animals can be taken on board in the US, with most airlines charging a fee and having limits for small pets only.

Some Middle Eastern airlines also allow falcons inside cabins and to have their own passports.

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