Mikhail Galin was distraught when Russian airline Aeroflot told him his cat, Viktor, was too heavy to fly in the cabin.
The gray-and-black feline was already sick from an earlier flight from Riga, Latvia, to Moscow that he had been allowed to take, Galin wrote in a November 6 Facebook post, and he couldn't bear the idea of putting him in cargo for eight hours. Aeroflot allows pets in the cabin if they and their container max out at eight kilograms, but Viktor weighed in at 10.
"I was very worried that during the duration of an eight-hour flight, something would happen to him in the cargo and he wouldn't survive the trip," Galin, 34, said. After his pleading failed to change any minds, he refused to fly.
Then he came up with what seemed like the perfect solution: a "mini-Viktor" body double. With the help of friends and the power of social media, he found a "miniature kitty" named Phoebe to present for inspection. Galin was able to use airline miles to book a flight on business class two days after the original flight.
"After spending another night in the capital, we went to the airport with a cat, a cat double and his owners," Galin wrote, according to a translation of his Facebook page. The switcheroo was a success: Phoebe was deemed an acceptable weight, but Galin ultimately brought his pudgier buddy onboard.
Photos he posted on Facebook showed the nearly 4-year-old kitty perched on Galin's lap, peering out a window and gazing at a glass of Champagne from his carrier.
"He liked business class a lot better than economy class, because he considered himself superior," Galin says.
But the story didn't end there. Aeroflot told several news outlets that it had kicked Galin out of its loyalty program and stripped him of his airline miles for breaking the rules.
"This information was confirmed by recording from video surveillance cameras," the airline said in a statement, according to CNN. "During the preflight inspection procedure, the passenger took out a large-sized cat that looks like a photograph of the cat he posted."
NBC News reported that Aeroflot was taking action against Galin for both sneaking an overweight cat onto the plane and taking him out of the carrier, as shown in the photos. Aeroflot did not immediately respond to emails and calls. The airline also didn't get in touch with Galin, who said he had 370,000 miles; he said he found out about the punishment through media reports.
"I did break their rules," Galin says. "Because of that, their internal program decided to hand down a punishment, and I can only agree with it."
Commenters chimed in with support for Viktor's plight. A politician with an apparent soft spot for pets and creative owners wrote a letter to the airline urging it to return Galin's miles and change its policies, NBC said. The Kremlin declined to weigh in, according to Russian media.
In a follow-up post Tuesday, Galin wrote that he hoped the airline would allow people to pay extra to bring an overweight pet into the cabin. He also said that Viktor is on special diet food, and that he had to bring the cat on the trip because he was moving for a work contract.
As a bonus, Galin included a photo of a younger, slimmer Viktor, "when his weight still met the requirements of the air carrier." He said he's had Viktor since the cat was a month old and tries not to fly with him. But he'd been on a work contract in Latvia for two years and brought the cat along.
"I myself fly a lot, so it's actually very bad they took my miles," he said with a laugh.
But the news hasn't all been bad. Some companies have stepped forward with offers, Galin said, because they don't agree with the airline's action. Viktor appears to be nearing cat-fluencer status.
"A few companies have offered cat food for an entire year," Galin says. "Other companies are offering bonus miles for car-sharing. I've been offered a taxi for practically unlimited use. I've even been offered a jersey in celebration of Viktor."