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The Travel Section

Air Canada Told: Offer Nut-free Zones

The Canadian Transportation Agency has ordered Air Canada to create a formal policy that includes nut- or peanut-free “buffer zones” on its airplanes to accommodate passengers with these serious food allergies. In its preliminary ruling, released January 7, 2010, the agency also declared peanut and tree nut allergies a “disability” in the context of air travel.

The buffer zone would be required when a passenger gives the airline advance notice of a nut allergy. The CTA says Air Canada could not serve nuts or peanuts in that area, and that a flight crew member would need to advise other passengers in the “zone” rows not to consume foods that contain peanuts or tree nuts.

The ruling comes as a result of formal complaints to the CTA from Sophia Huyer, a frequent flier from Toronto, and Rhonda Nugent of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, who filed on behalf of her daughter Melanie Nugent.

Both parties objected that Air Canada took insufficient steps to accommodate their anaphylactic allergies (tree nuts and peanuts respectively) in separate incidents. Huyer, who is highly sensitive to nuts and has asthma, spent 40 minutes in the washroom of one international flight after attendants denied her request to stop serving nuts to other passengers.

The decision also follows a lobbying campaign, organized by Allergic Living magazine, in which 1,100 people wrote letters to Air Canada and WestJet chief executives requesting formal allergy policies.

Mixed Reactions

“The CTA’s ruling is a vastly important step in the direction of recognizing the risks and rights of air travelers with serious food allergies,” said Gwen Smith, editor of Allergic Living. “It’s not everything we want to see to safeguard allergic passengers, but it’s a positive start.” She says that by making this ruling, the agency is telling Air Canada and the public that people with these allergies face health risks from exposures on a plane, and that “it’s not enough just to say: ‘bring your medications, you’re on your own.’”

Sophia Huyer, however, expressed disappointment in the ruling on her complaint. “I think the airlines should be prohibited from serving nuts altogether,” she said. “Why are they increasing the risk, at 30,000 feet?”

Air Canada was not yet commenting on the ruling. It has 30 days in which to respond to the agency to advise how much advance notice of an allergy it would need, and what size of a buffer zone it would provide.

According to a spokesperson from the CTA, Air Canada could also submit reasons why it could not put these precise measures in place and propose alternative accommodations. The complainants then have 10 days to respond, and some time after that the CTA will make its final decision. The agency’s rulings are legally binding.

Robert Palmer, spokesman for WestJet, Canada’s other national carrier, notes that his airline is already providing a buffer zone on its flights for the three rows ahead and three rows behind someone who has identified themselves with a serious food allergy. He says that system is working well. (WestJet also stopped serving nuts, peanuts and sesame snacks, though passengers still may bring their own nut treats on board.)

Giving Advance Notice

In its ruling on the two specific Air Canada complaints, the CTA says that if an allergic passenger gets on a flight without giving advance notice of peanut and nut allergies, Air Canada is still obliged to make “its best effort” to provide the buffer zone. If that’s not feasible on short notice, the airline will book the allergic passenger onto the next available flight and make these accommodations.

Smith says given the importance the CTA is putting on advance notice, it’s important that the national airlines provide reliable means during ticket-buying for passengers to request that allergy information be put on file, and then communicated to the flight crew. Huyer told the agency that such advance notification has been a problem at Air Canada, while Palmer acknowledges that the system for this at WestJet has room for improvement.

The Allergic Living campaign had suggested a general p.a. announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating highly allergenic foods such as nuts or peanuts when a person with such allergies is on board, and this was in fact recommended to the CTA by Dr. Gordon Sussman, one of two allergy experts advising the hearings.

The CTA ruling instead requests that Air Canada simply make the announcement in the “buffer zone” area. Smith hopes that Air Canada may still choose the general announcement as an easier solution and one that goes farther to minimize risk to allergic passengers.

What the Transportation Agency Said

In making its decision, the CTA weighed the recommendations made by Toronto allergists Dr. Gordon Sussman (advising the agency) and Dr. Peter Vadas (advising Air Canada), as well as the two complainants and Air Canada.

See: Key Findings

See Also:

• What the Transport Agency Said – Highlights of the Ruling
• Exclusive Chart comparison – 11 airlines and their food, pet allergy policies.
Allergic Living’s Reduce-the-Risk Airlines Campaign
• What about Pet Allergies on the Plane?
Allergic Living Feature Report: Flying Allergic by Jennifer Van Evra

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