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Reduce-the-Risk Airlines Campaign: An Update

The Letter to Air Canada, WestJet CEOs

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to you as someone whose daily life is affected by serious food allergies. I appreciate that the two major Canadian airlines have stopped serving peanuts on their aircraft. And I applaud that WestJet recently ceased serving snacks with tree nuts.

But allow me to make the urgent case to both airlines that more needs to be done to protect a growing population of food allergic travellers. You may not be aware of this but – the public health risk to such passengers aboard your aircraft remains too high. The abundant presence of highly allergenic foods consumed by other passengers presents a significant concern, especially since a jumbo jet travels thousands of feet in the air, remote from any hospital.

Consider these facts raised by the Toronto-based Allergic Living magazine in its current issue:

– Food allergies, which can be life-threatening, now affect approximately 1 million Canadians and 11 million Americans.

– A new study from the University of California at Davis found almost 10 per cent of food allergic patients reported having reactions aboard aircraft. (Most reactions were to nuts or peanuts; these are often brought aboard by fellow passengers.)

– An airplane is the only public venue aside from a baseball park where one will encounter so many nuts and peanuts.

I appreciate that the airlines cannot “guarantee” a 100 per cent allergen-free flight, as it not possible to control public environments completely. That’s not what those of us in the allergic community are seeking. What we are seeking are further allergen risk-reduction measures.

It’s important to consider that the main medical strategy to protect against a potentially deadly anaphylactic reaction is allergen avoidance. When dozens of fellow passengers are eating foods to which you are highly allergic, then handling tray tables, seat backs, etc., the risk of accidental exposures rises exponentially.

The severity of food allergic reactions is unpredictable. A “minor” reaction can escalate into life-threatening anaphylaxis within minutes. Even the person who uses an epinephrine auto-injector has a substantial risk of a secondary, potentially more dangerous, reaction.

Given the facts of allergic disease, it is essential to keep the risk of exposure low, especially in circumstances where hospital care is not available.

What can be done to improve the safety of food allergic customers? The two major Canadian airlines could take part in discussions with allergy community and develop risk-reducing measures surrounding the top allergens identified by Health Canada. Any new measures should be airline policy – then they would be consistently applied and communicated.

Some Suggested Food

Allergy Accommodations:

1. A process at time of booking to make the airline aware of a serious food allergy, and a means to confirm that notification with gate and flight crews.

2. With that notice, a p.a. announcement in the departure area could be made. This would entail advising passengers that a fellow passenger has life-threatening allergies and asking them to kindly refrain from eating the top allergen(s) in question.

3. With notice, a flight crew would not serve snacks or menu items containing identified top allergens as ingredients.

4. At the start of the flight, the crew could make another announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating certain highly allergenic food(s). In the case that a fellow passenger insisted on eating such a food, crew could effect a seating change.

Those of us who live with food allergies or have children with them would much prefer to have discussion and resolution with you rather than finding it necessary to take complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency. I am confident that with commitment to act on your part, food allergy safety issues can be resolved.

There are a million of us in Canada and our families as well who are affected. We are a growing part of your flying public, and will spread the word of positive steps that you take. We greatly appreciate efforts on our behalf.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.