Last Christmas, Sophie Hobbs's dog, Ebba, made it to Tasmania for their family holiday – but none of her human companions did.
They'd all been planning to fly from Sydney to Launceston to stay with Sophie's parents for the break until Virgin Australia closed its pet cargo office due to COVID-19. This meant the dog was put on an alternative Virgin flight to Hobart two days before the family was due to fly out, so Sophie's parents had to drive south to pick her up.
But then came the sudden Sydney lockdown which stopped Sophie and her family from flying.
"So my parents had to look after her while we weren't able to leave Sydney," said gallery owner Sophie, who lives in Erskineville, in Sydney's inner west, with husband Ralph, daughter India, 19, and son Hugo, 17. "Then eventually they took her back to Hobart and flew her back.
"So at least she got away for Christmas and had a lovely time, while we couldn't."
Virgin Australia and Qantas have now both outsourced their pet flight booking systems to approved pet travel specialists due to COVID.
While pets can still travel in the same aircraft as their owners – in the special pressurised area of the hold – all their ticketing, departure and arrival formalities are organised by other companies.
But pet-owning holidaymakers are angry because, as a result, the price of their animals' tickets have skyrocketed, in some cases, five-fold.
"Prices for taking dogs away with you have now all gone up so much, it's become unaffordable for many people," says Sophie, who's planning a new trip to Tasmania, along with miniature Labradoodle Ebba, but this time by ferry instead.
"We're being encouraged to holiday around Australia for the sake of the national economy, and so many hotels and Airbnbs now take pets, but this really impacts on where you go, and how you're going to get there."
Sydney University lecturer Dr Cynthia Hunter is similarly appalled. In June 2019, she flew from Sydney to Perth with her pooch Horrie, a Boston Terrier, and his one-way ticket cost $180.40. Today, the same journey via a pet booking agency, is $765, or $925 if it's a Saturday flight, plus a fit-to-fly vet examination fee of $125.
The company, in this case Petflyers, says its fee includes a meet and greet with their agent in Sydney Airport, the domestic air freight, and then a meet and greet with the agent at the other end, in Perth. The price is higher because Horrie is a short-snouted dog, and so is deemed to be at risk of breathing difficulties. There is no reduction in price if the owner is on the same flight and a meet and greet isn't needed.
"It's gone crazy as far as I'm concerned," said Dr Hunter. "I ended up getting three quotes and they were all similar. I even contacted the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission but they say there's nothing they can do.
"I think this will stop people wanting to take their pets away with them. Horrie's 6 and he's been flying with me since he was 18 months old. But now the cost makes it almost unviable."
A Qantas spokeswoman said pet flights could be booked through several companies and the price could vary according to the breed. But because of changing numbers of flights and schedules, it was important these services could pick up and care for pets if they became stranded through sudden border closures. Jetstar, meanwhile, has never transported pets.
At Virgin Australia, public affairs manager Kris Taute said, "We know pets are important members of the family and that customers want peace of mind when it comes to booking their pet for travel. While we're unable to make pet travel bookings direct at the moment, customers can still arrange travel through a commercial pet travel specialist."