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Gwen Smith: From the Editor's Desk

WestJet Steps Up to the Mike

Hallelujah, we’ve been heard. If you ask a flight attendant on WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline, she or he will step to the microphone and ask fellow passengers to please not pull out nut or peanut snacks. The attendant will briefly explain that this is because there is a person onboard with serious allergies.

This won’t be a big deal to most of WestJet’s passengers, but that little announcement is a huge deal to those who travel with serious peanut or tree nut allergies.

A p.a. announcement asking other passengers to “please refrain from eating” certain allergenic foods and was one of two key recommendations in Allergic Living’s “Reduce the Risk” write-in campaign, in which 1,100 Canadians wrote letters to the chief executives of both WestJet and Air Canada. The other was for clear, consistent policies, communicated to airline staff.

That lobby carried weight with WestJet, the airline’s longtime spokesman makes clear. The campaign “raised the profile of the issue; the letters made a big difference,” says Robert Palmer. “I still have them at my desk. They’re a constant reminder that this is an extremely important issue,” he says.

So pat yourselves on the back. You did it, allergy community, you got a major airline to listen and understand. And then they acted. Anaphylaxis Canada deserves credit for organizing confidential policy review discussions with WestJet earlier this year. (Talks included the main three allergy groups, allergists and Allergic Living.) That kept the issue of a formal allergy policy in front of executives of a busy airline.

As most of you know, Air Canada also just passed its formal policy. The timing is coincidence. Air Canada was told to finalize a formal policy by the Canadian Transportation Agency and the deadline was December 2. The CTA set out that Air Canada should set rules for an “exclusion” or buffer zone to protect those flying with nut of peanut allergies.

Air Canada complied and now you can request a small zone (where the attendants will ask other passengers not to eat peanuts or nuts) that consists in economy of the row you’re in, the row ahead and behind.

Outside the zone, other passengers can eat what they like and cashews and almonds, which Air Canada contends it can’t ask others to give up, will still be sold from the cart.

But requesting Air Canada’s buffer zone is a cumbersome process, which requires a form filled out by your doctor and faxed to the airline’s medical desk in addition to a call to Reservations to book, makes me wonder how many allergic frequent flyers will request this accommodation.

Still, this is a concession from an airline that flies 31 million passengers a year. It is a beginning. And at least in Canada, there are no peanuts being handed out by the airlines as is still dangerously the case on a few U.S. carriers.

Times have changed, and most airlines still aren’t aware that food allergies, which once were called rare, now affect two million Canadians and up to 12 million Americans – and that’s not counting those who fly with them.

WestJet is the kind of company that chose to hear the allergic community because as Palmer says “it’s the right thing to do.” With a few more executives with that attitude, with more awareness of the speed with which anaphylaxis can take hold, and with the strength of our community’s numbers, I truly hope the leadership shown by WestJet this week will be emulated by other airlines over the next couple of years.

It will take consistent reporting to the airlines – whatever airline – of any reactions allergic passengers experience onboard. (Better data is needed, so if you’re unfortunate enough to react – do tell the head office.)

And my friends, keep those letter-writing skills sharpened. It will take more campaigns, more negotiations, but greater allergy accommodations in the skies can happen.

For today, WestJet “gets” that safety trumps a handful of nuts for a couple of hours on a plane. And tomorrow? Others will, too.