Flying the friendly skies with falcons is actually a thing
Good news, traveller! You can forget about the ear-piercing screams of colicky babies and bone-rattling turbulence for a while. Your next flight may have you sharing the cabin with a screeching bird of prey.
Yes, thanks to the Internet, the world has photographic evidence of 80 pet falcons aboard a commercial plane. The pic of the birds was snapped by an amused Qatar airlines pilot mid-flight. Note: the plane is mid-flight, not the birds. It gets confusing. To be fair, birds travelling by plane is pretty meta. Like fish traveling by submarine. Thankfully, the travelling falcons, all prized pets of a Saudi prince, seem to be on their best behaviour. They're donning tiny pacifying leather helmets. You know, so they know not to hunt stuff just now. Badass and adorable.
But birds of prey, aka raptors (very cool), are a pretty popular travel companion. Especially in the skies over the United Arab Emirates. Airlines like Etihad, Qatar and Emirates Air all have clear provisions for passengers travelling with a falcon. Qatar's website even has a page detailing its bird of prey policy. Travellers should note that it's priciest to bring your falcon to Japan, but cheapest to bring it to the State of Qatar. Also, you cannot fly to or from Tunis with a bird of prey. Go figure.
All things considered, airlines, it seems, are pretty accommodating. No, you still can't bring more than 100 ml of Pert Plus on a plane but go ahead and bring your fave raptor(s) for either cabin travel or luggage check. How many birds can you bring? Up to 80, apparently. The German airline, Lufthansa, will even provide you with the patented Falcon Master, a top-rate bird perch for your little bundle of feathers and claws.
Falconry is the ancient art of hunting prey with another animal of prey. Like going deer hunting but leaving the gun at home and bringing a wolf instead (or going fishing with a trained shark?). Scholars place its origins in the far east around 1700 BCE and, for better or worse, it's still quite popular in the UAE. The sport, possibly the unique privilege of the upper class, was likely forbidden (or just too costly) for lower classes.
That may still hold true. Today your run-of-the-mill falcon will go for anywhere from $1000 to $100,000 US. But top-breed falcons can sell for up to $1 million. The high prices don't just make falcons the playthings of the super rich. They make them choice objects for illegal trade on the black market. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) got tough on falcon smuggling (pssst, wanna buy a hunting bird? *opens trench coat*) in 2002 making falcon passports mandatory. Over 28,000 birds of prey have been approved for passports since 2002 alone. There's a Trump immigration joke in here somewhere but I think I'll swoop around it. Smiling in the photos is strictly prohibited, which is fine because birds don't have lips. Actually, there are no photos in bird passports. Bummer. Each bird is simply fitted with a numbered leg ring that gets recorded. It's all very pragmatic.
The national bird of the UAE? You guessed it. The falcon. And it's a marker of national pride. There's even an annual falconry festival in Abu Dhabi that lures birds and masters from all corners of the globe. It's in early January, so you and your falcon(s) still have 11 months to train.
Make no mistake though, birds of prey are not the weirdest animals the TSA have had to contend with. There was a fellow who thought 22 live eels in a plastic bag might slip by. Another man once tried to conceal bootleg pigeons in his socks. And, of course, we very nearly had snakes on a plane when a crafty traveller attempted to smuggle seven snakes in his slacks (say that three times fast). The snakes were wrapped in hosiery "along with several small turtles." Fact.
I'll gladly take a registered prize falcon as a seat buddy over a dude in snake trousers.
So, if you're travelling with your sporting bird anytime soon, make sure its little birdie passport is up to date. If you don't have a bird of prey, maybe still bring some bird seed or meat strips in your carry-on. Might come in handy.
Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen.