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The Allergy Blogs • The Editor's Desk

Air Canada’s Chilly Response

We’ve been getting a lot of e-mail lately at Allergic Living magazine from readers asking: what do you think about the Canadian Transportation Agency’s decision that Air Canada must accommodate peanut and tree nut allergies? Does it go far enough? And then Air Canada responded to the CTA, and that brought more mail: What do you think of Air Canada’s response?

Allow me to answer. When I look at the big picture – the news is so encouraging for those living with serious allergies. A major airline regulator has confirmed that, yes, there is a health and safety issue with potential contact with peanuts and nuts by allergic individuals in the confines of an airplane cabin. And the regulator says precautions, including nut-free buffer zones, are required.

But there are shortcomings in the specifics. As the CTA requested, Air Canada has replied to the agency, not embracing the findings, but offering the bare minimum to comply. This is disappointing.

Allergic Obstacles

Air Canada is a national carrier that can be so good with passengers that it recently was voted “Best Airline in North America” by Global Traveler magazine. Yet, there is a begrudging tone to its response to the CTA on peanut and nut allergies.

Before considering that response, you have to recall the CTA’s decision from early January. It examined two specific complaints against Air Canada regarding peanut and nut allergy accommodations. Following an inquiry and recommendations from two allergists, the airline authority confirmed a medical fact: peanut and nut allergies bring the risk of anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening.

At thousands of feet in the air, far from a hospital, and considering the fatality record of these two allergens, the CTA ruled that peanut and nut allergies qualified as a “disability” and proved an obstacle to travel without some accommodations.

The CTA told Air Canada to create buffer zones around persons with such allergies in cases where the allergic person had given advance notice. The idea is that a flight attendant ask other passengers not to consume nut snacks off the cart in these rows, and also to refrain from eating any peanut or nut snacks they’ve brought on-board. Mindful not to tell a big airline how to manage the details of its operations, the CTA then asked Air Canada to recommed how buffer zones would work in practice.

Here’s where, to Allergic Living’s point of view, things get disappointing. Air Canada’s response to the regulator is perfunctory. Sure, the airline does address the buffer zone issue, as the CTA told it to, but it offers only one row ahead and one row behind in economy (not crossing the aisle) as the “zone” free of nuts and peanuts.

A flight attendant would inform only other passengers in the small zone that one of them has a nut or peanut allegy and Air Canada says: “invite them to refrain from consuming these products.” The airline contends that a similar gentle inquiry of the one neighbour in Business Class constitutes a “buffer zone”.

One’s Invited, One’s Not

Tone and omission can speak volumes. In Economy, it is the fellow passengers who are “invited,” not “asked,” not “requested” to keep the allergenic nut products tucked away. Compare that to the airline’s later suggestion that, when it comes to meal service, “excluding all nut products would cause significant problems for many passengers who rely on nuts as their main source of protein.”

Funny enough, most allergic people wouldn’t trust the catered food with a barge pole (due to the risk of hidden ingredients at 35,000 feet). Not to say that a cultural or dietary choice of vegetarian diet doesn’t deserve accommodation, but why does a serious health condition not merit equal concern?

The airline hands out cashews or almonds in Business Class. As there is no mention of any change to this practice, one presumes this practice would continue around the one-seat buffer zone. Nor is there any mention of whether cashews and other nut snacks would be pulled from the cart when nut-allergic passengers have identified themselves. Again, one presumes not.

The allergy community asked in a national campaign (conducted on this website) for Air Canada to consider a general p.a. announcement o n flights with allergic persons present. An attendant could ask fellow passengers to kindly refrain from eating certain allergenic products. Other smaller carriers do make such announcements, but Air Canada was non-commital, saying only that it would wait to see what the CTA had to say.

In his report to the CTA as an expert, allergist Dr. Gordon Sussman recommended Air Canada give a general announcement that there was a person on-board with a serious allergy. That wasn’t one of the CTA’s recommendations and, of course, it’s not something Air Canada has volunteered to do.

Disappointment stems from the fact that Air Canada is, in many ways, a very good airline. The CTA presented it with a golden opportunity to step up to the plate, to be a leader in the skies with an advanced allergy policy.

In a time of more and more peanut and nut allergies, the food-allergy community desperately needs a champion, a big North American carrier to say, “yes, we get it. Nut allergies and altitude are a dangerous mix. Let’s find real accommodation.” Instead, we’re offered one row of comfort, provided we give advance notice that there’s no clear way to give.

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