United Airlines hires 'comfort dogs' to cheer airport travelers

United Airlines has begun a new program to help soothe air travelers during the holiday rush. Comfort dogs will greet passengers at United terminals in seven airport hubs – petting and tail-wagging heavily encouraged. 

United Airlines is taking a new approach to soothe travel stress: “comfort dogs” for holiday travelers having a ruff day.

The Chicago-based airline is launching its holiday program, called United Paws, to help cheer up travelers after going through security and soothe any nerves before flying. The program, now in its second holiday season, will employ over 200 service dogs in seven airports across the nation. 

United Airlines believes the dogs could be a much-needed improvement for a mode of travel that can be frightening for some, especially in a time of heightened global anxiety. 

“During the holidays we tend to have a lot of people who are not used to traveling as much and not as experienced in traveling through the airports,” Mark Krolick, United’s managing director of marketing, told Forbes. “We are looking for ways to take the stress out of travel for them.”

Several studies have argued that up to 40 percent of travelers have some level of anxiety about flying, Dr. Lucas van Gerwen, an aviation psychologist and professional pilot in the Netherlands, told The New York Times in 2007. 

United Paws has deployed 230 professionally trained comfort dogs in total. They will greet travelers outside of security and scattered throughout the Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark and Washington-Dulles airports through Dec. 23.

The United Paws program launched last year, after Mr. Krolick saw how trained comfort dogs helped hospital patients cope. ”My thinking was if it works in the hospital, there’s no reason it couldn’t work in the airport,” Krolick told Forbes.

The program is expanded from a handful of smaller airports in 2014 to seven different airport hubs this year. The expansion is just in time for a record-breaking holiday travel season.

The 2015 holiday season will be the first to break the 100 million traveler mark, according to a forecast released last week by the American Automobile Association. One-third of Americans will be traveling more than 50 miles form their homes between Dec. 23 and January 5. An estimated  5.7 percent, or 5.7 million, of the travelers will be flying.

The concept of using trained dogs to spread joy is already widely used. Programs like Therapy Dogs International visit nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutions. 

Introducing comfort dogs to airports is newer, but the idea is catching on. Los Angles International airport funds a similar program to United Paws, called Pets Unstressing Passengers, all year. Other holiday programs are also visiting various airports. The “Wag Brigade” is also pawing its way through San Francisco International Airport, courtesy of San Francisco SPCA.

Previously, this Thanksgiving holiday weekend saw comfort dogs greeting travelers at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. 

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