Canadian Transportation Agency’s Nuts Ruling
Air Canada Ruling: January 2010
In making its decision, the Canadian Transportation Agency 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. Following are the key findings of the CTA’s ruling.
When is Allergy “Disability”
To determine if there is an “obstacle to mobility for disabled persons,” the transportation agency first determines if there is a disability.
In 2002, the CTA examined seven allergy complaints against Air Canada (five involved allergies to cats in the cabin, the other two were scent-related). The agency ruled that allergies per se are not always disability, but might be found such on a case-by-case basis.
When Sophia Huyer and the mother of Melanie Nugent formally complained about experiences flying with peanut and nut allergies on Air Canada, the CTA chose to examine whether their complaints fit the disability description on this case-by-case basis. It ruled that they did.
But it further ruled, based on expert testimony, that other persons with nut and peanut allergies similarly qualified as having disability.
In the Huyer-Nugent ruling, the agency found that both complainants were offered a measure of accommodation by Air Canada – in each case, moving to other seats. But the agency was concerned about Air Canada’s ad hoc treatment, and the lack of formal policy addressing the needs of travelers with nut and peanut allergies.
The CTA found this amounts to an obstacle to mobility for those with these particular allergies.
“The agency is of the opinion that in making their travel plans, persons with disabilities are entitled to the same certainty that other people enjoy of being able to travel as scheduled,” it wrote.
Peanut/Nut Allergies and “Disability”
Both Dr. Sussman and Dr. Vadas noted there were nine top allergenic foods in Canada (in 2009). Dr. Vadas said that peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish were responsible for “the majority of near-fatal and fatal anaphylactic reactions.” Both experts confirmed that allergic reactions could result from minute exposures to nut/peanut allergens.
Nut-free Zones, Announcements
One of Dr. Sussman’s recommendations was simply not to serve nuts, but he agreed that it’s impossible to create an allergen-free environment.
Instead, the CTA opted for a “buffer zone” approach. Its ruling says: “a buffer zone is the appropriate accommodation for persons with disabilities due to their allergy to peanuts or nuts.”
It directs Air Canada not to serve nuts or peanuts in that area, and says 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 agency leaves it to Air Canada to recommend the size of the zone.
The agency determined it was not necessary for Air Canada to make an announcement to the entire aircraft that someone with a nut or peanut allergy is on board. It suggests that since no one immediately surrounding the allergic person in the buffer zone will be eating nuts or peanuts, the rest of the passengers don’t need to be notified.
The CTA considered a recommendation from Dr. Sussman that aircraft personnel be required to have training on auto-injectors, but turned it down.
“The primary responsibility for the use of medication to address allergic reactions rests with the persons with disabilities due to their allergy to peanuts or nuts,” the ruling states.
While it was discussed that, in certain situations a person can have a reaction to an airborne allergen, the two allergists also said that the primary risk is from ingestion. Air Canada said that it uses HEPA filters “similar to filters used in critical wards in hospitals”.
The CTA ruled that “the risk of an allergic reaction due to the inhalation of peanut or nut particles on aircraft is significantly reduced on modern generation aircraft as a result of both the aircraft air filtration and circulation systems.”
Allergic Living Letter Campaign – What did it say?
In 2008, Allergic Living ran a campaign in which numerous reader letters were submitted to the CEOs of Air Canada and WestJet. The letters sought formal allergy policies, such as the CTA now will require of Air Canada.
The form letter suggested:
• A process at booking to make the airline staff aware of a passenger’s serious food allergy;
• That crew not serve snacks with the top allergen in question when given such notice;
• The airline advise their staff to make two general p.a. announcements (one in the departure lounge, one on the flight) requesting that passengers refrain from eating the top allergen in question.
Air Canada initially responded that it was considering the campaign’s proposals, but never did offer a full response. WestJet, which no longer serves peanut, nut or sesame products, did express interest in the campaign’s suggestions.
• Air Canada Ordered to Offer Nut-free Zones.
• Exclusive Chart comparison – 13 airlines and their food, pet allergy policies.
• The Full CTA Ruling
• Feature Report: Flying Allergic by Jennifer Van Evra