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This is Nuts, No If Ands Or Buffer

Samantha Yaffe’s opinionated view of motherhood with allergies. This month, Sam has a distressing encounter with Air Canada’s new allergy policy.

“Sorry ma’am, but your son cannot board this plane if he hasn’t been cleared by our med desk at least 48 hours in advance,” says the airline employee at the gate in Miami. “It’s the new policy ma’am. Nothing I can do about it ….”

“Do you hear what you’re saying to me?” I respond repeatedly, with as much restraint as humanly possible (I’m well aware that any hint of aggression will get me nothing but a personal escort out of Miami International and a byline on the Air Canada blacklist).

My eyes are welling, my voice is cracking, my hands are shaking. Honey is in the gift shop with the kids buying gum; a line is starting to form behind me as I’m facing what seems the biggest human rights moment of my life.

“It’s 2011. We’re in America. Do you hear what you’re saying to me?” I add to my mantra.

All I was looking for was a quick conversation with someone from the flight crew so I could let them know about Lucas’ allergies and see about a p.a. announcement. I wasn’t requesting Air Canada’s new nut-free buffer zone, which I already know requires advance medical clearance.

I attempt to clarify this point several times, but according to this employee, what I’m requesting is irrelevant. “Your son is not allowed to fly without advance medical clearance because of his peanut allergy, and it’s too late for that.

“I’m sorry, but that’s what the policy says, ma’am!”

Resistance – I’m accustomed to. Ignorance – I’ve come to expect. But shameless discrimination against my innocent 8-year-old boy? I’m sick.

For me, there’s nothing friendly about the skies except on the occasion when you get an obliging flight attendant who’s happy to make a timely announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating peanuts and tree nuts on the plane; who’s willing to not serve or sell our allergens on board our flight; and who possesses the common sense and basic sensitivity we allergy parents pray for every time we fly.

You don’t always encounter these angels of flight, but they are out there. Well, at least they were out there until our fair Air Canada was led by its regulating body, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), to adopt its nut-free buffer zone policy in late 2010. This is undoubtedly the cause for the anti-allergy confusion in Miami.

Ahh, Air Canada’s new buffer zone – the one “nut-free” row behind and in front of (but not beside) a medically approved allergic passenger, “set up in order to help avoid the risk of exposure.” Yada yada.

The point is you have to be medically approved to have a buffer zone set up for you, not medically approved to board the plane. This may be a small detail to airline personnel not apprised of the nuances of the new policy or the reason for its existence in the first place, but a colossal detail when you’re a self-declared allergic mom looking for a courtesy at the gate.

The truth is I already hated this policy before my Allergygate Scandal. Despite Air Canada’s stated interest in forming “a policy to accommodate people with severe peanut and nut allergies,” to me, the new formal policy seems to have the opposite effect. It shows little understanding of the life-threatening risk of anaphylaxis and serves more as a deterrent to the allergic flyer than a protective measure.

The risk of exposure is everywhere on an airplane, which as we all know is not an environment easily exited nor sanitized between flights.

And here’s the newsflash of the year: People who eat nuts on planes sometimes leave their seats. They touch surfaces and they go to the loo, just as allergic people do. Flight attendants serving and clearing nuts also move around and use the same hands to serve everybody, no matter where they’re sitting. So much for the “nut-free” zone.

After the Miami experience, I wrote to Air Canada and quickly received a reply from customer service head honcho Michael Tremblay, who apologized and assured me that peanut- and nut-allergic people do not need medical clearance to fly. He also promised to track down the misguided Miami employee for a little re-training.

Tremblay writes that “medical clearance is required if a customer wishes the [buffer] zone to be set up but this service is optional.” That I was well aware of, but good to hear the confirmation.

The big question is: “If I don’t opt for the buffer zone, but choose to tell the flight crew that my son is allergic in hopes of receiving a courtesy announcement and some additional accommodation, can I actually be kicked off or prevented from boarding?”

Tremblay’s response: “If a customer has an allergy that is not severe and does not feel the zone is required, he/she is not obligated to sign up for this service. The buffer zone policy was definitely not set up to alienate those who choose not to use it … it was set up to help those who do.”

But then he notes: “Now that we have a buffer zone policy, we have asked the crew to follow our new policy rather than entertain miscellaneous requests – we feel this ensures everyone is treated in a safe and consistent manner.”

“Safe and consistent.” That sounds good except of course the new “consistent” policy precludes ad hoc announcement requests. So my son is afforded less protection than he used to get.

While Tremblay says communicating this new policy to thousands of employees is no easy task, a real doozy comes in his concluding paragraph. “While I trust the purpose of your article is to inform readers with peanut allergies on how to travel safely,” he writes, “it is unfortunate that the actions of one of our 24,000 employees has painted Air Canada in a bad light.”

My family came within a hair’s breadth of being ignominiously tossed off a flight for one reason: my son’s peanut allergy. And this Air Canada excuses as the act of one employee? “It’s 2011. We’re in America. Do you hear what you’re saying to me?”
I am a big advocate for policy that protects and responds to the very real concerns of allergic flyers, but I know I’m not the only allergy parent who thinks the buffer zone concept fails to achieve that. At best, it is a bare-minimum measure that has anaphylactic travelers jumping through a tangled mess of red tape only to enjoy a false sense of security in a big metal tube 35,000 feet in the air.

For allergy families, it has diminished our access to significantly better accommodations, albeit at the whim of the flight crew. And as per my most recent encounter, instead of ensuring “everyone is treated in a safe and consistent manner,” it confounds the frontline staff and makes allergy moms cry in public.


“I’m just going to walk away,” I finally say to the employee-of-the-month behind the desk at the gate, not knowing whether she’ll stop me. I don’t look back.

I join Honey and the kids who are now a few rows away in the waiting area. I’m still shaking. The pre-boarding announcement is made. I have my iPhone gripped, ready to capture the dreaded moment when we’re turned away, despite the U.S. Department of Transportation’s rule of “non-discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel” (not to mention the CTA’s declaration that peanut and tree nut allergies are “disability” in the context of air travel).

We wait until the line thins out before heading over, and then I hear it. “Excuse me, ma’am,” she calls over. “Ms. Yaffe?”

I look up in dread – iPhone recording, fingernails dug into Honey’s arm. “I spoke to the flight crew and they’re going to make an announcement for you. Just let them know who you are when you board the plane. But for the future,” she adds, “make sure you get that medical clearance.”

Exhale .…

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