LAX airport’s Pets Unstressing Passengers programme brings visitors comfort in the form of its cute and cuddly canines. Director Heidi Huebner tells Abra Dunsby about its success
Air travel can be a stressful experience for clients – not all will be taking a journey for pleasure, and for some, fear of flying and the stress of queueing at airport security can add to feelings of anxiety.
The solution? Pet a pooch, according to Los Angeles International (LAX) airport, which celebrates the fifth year of its Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP) programme in 2018.
Its claims aren’t unfounded: scientists agree that petting dogs has a positive effect on our health, helping to release stress-busting, bond-forming hormone oxytocin.
Heidi Huebner, PUP’s programme director at LAX airport, says the dogs have a calming influence on passengers who “forget about their nerves”.
The programme was launched because LAX wanted to enhance the guest experience, Huebner explains, and began in 2013 with 20 dogs and volunteers.
“We now have 90 dogs of different ages, breeds and sizes – from an Irish wolfhound named Truman to a tiny Chihuahua named Miz Penelope – and they all contribute something special to our programme,” says Huebner.
The dogs and their owners are stationed behind security screening posts inside terminals, near the gates. “Visitors are encouraged to pet the dogs and spend time de-stressing before flying, and the volunteers are there to answer questions and help visitors with directions,” adds Huebner.
Huebner says that the benefits of the programme for passengers have been “immeasurable”. “We never know why people are travelling. It could be for happy or sad reasons – vacations, relocations, reunions or funerals. To have this interaction with a cute and cuddly pup can be an instant mood- booster for guests. It’s such a simple interaction, but the enhanced guest experience can be life-changing.”
During busy times, such as holiday periods and major events, the presence of the pups and their volunteers is increased to help keep passengers happy.
The reactions from passengers are “priceless”, adds Huebner. “They see the dogs and their red ‘Pet Me!’ vests and it provokes a huge smile – they’re so excited to be able to pet the dogs.
“Other passengers have read about the dogs in the media already and they’ll tell us how excited they are to finally meet them. It’s those reactions that I love. You can feel a traveller’s energy change immediately when they spot the dogs at the airport. It’s such a visceral reaction that warms the heart.”
Huebner has just as much praise for the “kind, caring and giving volunteers” who roam the airport with their pets. “Our volunteers interact with people on their best and worst days. They love their dogs, and they love watching them give comfort to our guests.”
She believes that the dogs and their owners bring people together. “Rather than having their heads buried in cell phones or laptops, our guests talk to each other and share their excitement with strangers while bonding with the dogs.”
The PUP programme has received plenty of media coverage. “Visitors often snap pictures and take selfies to memorialise their unforgettable experience, and LAX is often tagged on social media,” adds Huebner.
PUP has become so popular that other airports are following suit – to date LAX has helped 58 other airports start similar dog therapy programmes.
“When airports reach out to LAX as a prototype, it confirms that we’re leading the way when it comes to integrating pet therapy into the airport industry,” affirms Huebner. “We believe that the programme is a vital way for us to enhance the guest experience for travellers at LAX.”
So, the next time clients are feeling frazzled at LAX, make sure they look out for the cuddly canines waiting to bring them some cheer and relaxation.