Maureen Neary and her 17-year-old son got on an Air Canada flight headed from Vancouver to Toronto on Sept. 7, 2010. She asked the flight attendant if it was possible to make a P.A. announcement asking passengers to refrain from opening peanut packages because of her son’s peanut allergy.
The result of this request was that her son Scott (and she with him) was almost thrown off the flight.
What was the issue? “He [the pilot] was concerned the allergy could be airborne and he could be looking at a medical emergency and he didn’t want to have to land his plane,” Neary said in an interview with Allergic Living. She describes the pilot telling her directly “that he was not comfortable with Scott on this flight.”
She says if she hadn’t interceded, “I wouldn’t have known I was minutes away from being deplaned with my son and our luggage. The baggage guy was there being instructed to take the baggage off.”
A week later, Neary remains shocked and upset. “It was discriminatory, they shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said Air Canada would not comment on the specifics of the Nearys’ experience or on the pilot seeing a flight risk. Fitzpatrick was still trying to determine if there is an incident report and whether Air Canada would investigate the Nearys’ complaint.
A Request Goes Wrong
The Sept. 7 incident began when Neary, Scott and Scott’s cousin, all residents of St. John’s, Newfoundland, got on the Toronto-bound Air Canada flight in Vancouver. Neary, a cancer support worker, told the flight attendant checking tickets: “My 17-year-old son is flying with me and has a peanut allergy.” She then asked: “Could you please announce to the people onboard that he has this allergy and that they not open any peanut products?”
Neary has routinely made such requests of flight attendants. However, Air Canada doesn’t have a policy that such announcements will be made, but rather its policy simply advises passengers to take their own precautions and bring their medications on board. (The Nearys were carrying epinephrine auto-injectors.)
On the Sept. 7 flight, the attendant replied to her allergy announcement request that “we don’t do that.” Neary expressed surprise – she hadn’t been turned down on other trips. She says she wasn’t going to press the point, but the flight attendant offered to check with someone else and took Scott’s ticket. Neary went to her seat and Scott and his cousin took their seats several rows back.
The meal steward soon came by, asking: “How allergic is your son?” and “Is he anaphylactic?” and he next inquired whether Scott was allergic to “airborne” peanut. To the latter, Neary said she wasn’t sure, but stressed that Scott had only had one anaphylactic reaction – at six months of age.
The plane didn’t budge, and when Neary saw a big discussion at the front of the plane, she suspected it had to do with Scott. As she was approaching the huddled crew – the pilot, co-pilot, three attendants and a fellow who turned out to be a baggage handler – a stewardess confided that the discussion was about taking her son off the flight.
A shocked Neary identified herself to the pilot, whom she cites as saying “that for the safety and comfort of his passengers, he didn’t feel safe taking my son on board.”
She says the pilot mentioned that the airline served nuts in first class and questioned the airborne risk. (Air Canada serves cashews and almonds in first class but stopped serving peanuts a few years ago.) Neary stressed that her son is not allergic to any tree nuts, just peanuts, which Air Canada doesn’t serve. The pilot remained concerned, however, about possible airborne issues with other products that passengers brought on board.
Neary had sought the p.a. announcement precisely to try to reduce risks of accidental peanut contact with other passengers’ food. But now she found herself in the odd position of pleading to stay on the cross-country flight by playing down her son’s allergy – and promising that he would eat nothing at all on the flight.
“I just kept talking and talking until finally the pilot said, ‘well, I guess so.’ But he was very reluctant.”
When the plane was finally aloft – about 15 to 20 minutes late, both Neary and her son say the pilot came on to announce that he was sorry for the delay, but there was a “medical emergency” he had to deal with on the ground.
While Air Canada would not comment on any details, Fitzpatrick did confirm that “the pilot is in charge of the aircraft and the safety, the health, and the comfort of all the passengers are ultimately his responsibility.”
Anaphylaxis Canada expressed concern about what took place on that flight. “This unfortunate incident raises concerns about the need for clear and consistent airline policies for people with severe allergies,” said spokesperson Beatrice Povolo.
At home in St. John’s, Neary sees bigger issues from the experience for those traveling with medical conditions. “What if it wasn’t a peanut allergy? What if it was somebody with a pacemaker. Are you going to say, ‘I’m afraid for you to fly because you might have a heart attack in the middle of the flight?’”
She also has concerns that this experience may make her son less likely to speak up about his allergy: “He’s 17, he’s going to be traveling his whole life.”
For those with allergies, the issue always arises in difficult in-flight situations: Is there a ‘right’ to travel?” Neary is unequivocal that there has to be. “I think everybody has a right to travel. I mean, we live on an island, how else are we getting off it?”
See also these Gwen Smith posts:
Air Canada’s Chilly Response  to the CTA Ruling
What Teachers and Parents Should Know About Allergies : article for the CBC