Piper

Piper, the Wildlife Control K-9 of Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. Image via Cherry Capital Airport

APEX Insight: Canines are no longer confined to their traditional airport duties. In addition to screening passengers for explosives, they’re patrolling runways and calming nervous travelers. Dogs are quickly becoming an airline passenger’s best friend.

Dogs are playing a progressively more integral role in the airline passenger experience. Across the United States, 275 canines work with the Transportation Security Agency, sniffing around security checkpoints. But dogs are doing more than detecting explosives –many airports now have trained therapy dogs that interact with travelers and lower stress. And there’s at least one dog that helps keep airport runways free of wildlife.

That’s Piper, a Border Collie whose job title is Wildlife Control K-9 of Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan. The seven-year-old social media star – Piper has over 21,000 Instagram followers – wears a ski mask, earmuffs and boots, which protect his feet from rocks the helicopters kick up. He checks the perimeter fence for rodent holes and patrols for birds. He especially likes chasing snowy owls. One day, even eagles and hawks may make flying safer. Dutch police are training the birds of prey to pluck drones from the sky near runways.

A volunteer airport chaplain’s dog, Orion, may have been the first airport canine to interact with travelers. When the chaplain brought Orion to work at Mineta San José International Airport shortly after 9/11, her calming influence was a big hit and the idea spread.

Therapy dogs and their handlers walk many airport concourses now, interacting with and calming fearful or stressed fliers. At LAX, where the therapy dog program is called Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUP), dogs and handlers go through classroom, and on-the-job, training. At New York’s Albany International Airport, 24 “canine ambassadors” range from three-and-a-half to 150 pounds. The program at the Reno-Tahoe Airport is called Paws4Passengers, and its dogs wear red vests reading “Pet Me!” Since smiles aren’t all the furry creatures leave behind, the therapy dog handlers at Denver International Airport are equipped with lint brushes to ensure that passengers arrive at their destinations happy and fur-free.

Leslie Lang is a freelance writer who lives in Hilo and writes about Hawaii, travel and tourism. She has adopted her grandmother’s credo that one should never pass up a trip.