Posted September, 2009: It was shortly after takeoff when Joanne Silver began to feel like she couldn’t breathe. The Ontario woman was on a WestJet flight to Saskatoon to visit family, her three kids seated behind her, when her eyes began to swell and she felt her airways tightening. Silver has had asthma most of her life, but reactions this serious were usually caused by a single culprit: a cat.
The attack quickly escalated to the level that would normally land Silver in the emergency room, and she pushed the button for the flight attendant. “As she got to me, she looked at the man beside me and said, ‘Sir, you can’t have your cat on your lap like that,’” she recounts.
Silver had no idea she’d been seated next to a cat owner and his pet. “He had snuck the cat out of the carrier and had it on his lap under his jacket. And I said, ‘I can’t sit here – I can’t breathe.’”
Silver was immediately moved away from the cat, but it was too late: by then the asthma attack was in full swing, and her inhalers were barely keeping her any relief as she suffered through the flight. “When we arrived, my dad took one look at me and said, ‘What happened?’ He could see I couldn’t breathe.”
Silver’s travel tale could become far more common. As of July 2009, Canada’s largest airline similarly began allowing owners to fly with cats or small dogs. In a policy reversal, Air Canada dropped a 2½-year ban on animals in the cabin – a move that has caused alarm among pet-allergic travelers, asthma organizations and medical practitioners, and it has spurred the Canadian Lung Association to launch a write-in campaign to bring the issue to the federal government.
Air Canada says the decision to drop the ban on pets came after customers complained they were unable to travel with their small pets, as they could on WestJet and other carriers. “We looked for the best way of balancing the needs of all of our customers,” says Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah. “By doing this, we are aligning our policies with the vast majority of international airlines as well as our major domestic competitor.”
At least three million Canadians suffer from asthma and allergies, and with some of the most potentially dangerous allergens being allowed on board, travel options for hundreds of thousands of passengers are becoming more limited.
Mah stresses that pets are limited to either two or four per flight (depending on the size of the aircraft), and that animals must be kept in their pet carriers under the seats. If an allergy sufferer ends up sitting near a pet, the airline will make “all reasonable efforts” to move one or the other to a different seat or flight.
Pet Hair on Clothes
Even when the pets ban was in effect, Mah adds, the airline could not guarantee a “dander-free cabin”, because many passengers have pet hair on their clothes, and because the airline must allow service animals for passengers with disabilities. Most planes are equipped with high-efficiency HEPA filters, and she says the cabin air quality “compares favourably” to that in other indoor environments.
Dr. Donald Stark is not convinced. The Vancouver allergist lobbied to have animals removed from airline cabins so that people with pet allergies – roughly 10 per cent of the population – could breathe more easily when they travel. Having a pet in the cabin is far worse than having a pet owner with a little hair on the clothes, he says, because the levels of allergen being released into the air are much higher.
Stark adds that air filters can only do so much – especially if they’re not changed frequently – and air moving through the cabin can affect allergic flyers before it even gets to the filter.
While the air quality in some cabins may be similar to other indoor environments, there is one key difference: on the ground, an allergic person can walk out the door.
“Most people have the opportunity to get away from that pet,” says Stark, who is himself allergic to pets, and has treated many pet-allergic travelers and flight attendants. “On a plane, they don’t have that opportunity, so there is always a risk that it could progress to a more serious asthmatic response.”
Stark is also concerned that, because most people wouldn’t expect to come in contact with a cat or dog on an airplane, they may be caught off guard – and without their medications. Once an asthma attack starts, just moving the passenger to a different seat will likely have little effect.
“We know from experiences and studies that for someone who is allergic to a cat, even just five minutes of exposure will cause their asthmatic symptoms to potentially flare up for the next two weeks,” he says.
Air Canada and WestJet may be trying to please customers by allowing animals in the cabin, but Stark believes that, with the ballooning rates of pet-allergic patients and the medical emergencies and lost business the airlines may experience as a result, such policies could hit the air carriers squarely in the pocketbook.
“I think people should be writing to Air Canada to protest the change, as a start,” he says. “Patients are going to have to make a fuss about these issues and not suffer in silence. Then I think Air Canada might realize their mistake.”
Patient Complaints Pour In
That fuss is well underway. The Air Canada policy change was covered in the major media across Canada, and the Canadian Lung Association  launched a letter-writing campaign that garnered thousands of responses. The association seeks to have the issue heard before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.
“We have a responsibility to put the public health of Canadians first,” says Cameron Bishop, spokesperson for the Lung Association. “That’s the responsibility of Parliament. And if the airlines aren’t going to do it, then we’ll make sure that parliament does.” However, by the end of July the chair of the health committee would make no commitment to public hearings, referring to Air Canada’s decision as an operational matter.
In a recent Lung Association survey, 80 per cent of respondents felt the airlines should offer pet-free flights, and 75 per cent believed that the government should take action to protect passengers and crew.
“One of our medical advisers said, ‘It would only take one person to have a fatal attack on one of these airlines for all of these policies to be reversed,’” says Bishop. “From our perspective, it’s better to be safe with the health of travelers and the air crew now than sorry later.”
Silver is just a couple of weeks away from her annual flight to Saskatchewan with her kids, which she booked on Air Canada before the pet policy change was announced. She plans to load up on allergy medications before taking the trip, but still, she’s worried about the possibility of another major attack.
“I could have taken a WestJet flight, but I said, ‘I’ll go with Air Canada. At least I don’t have to worry about animals,’” she says. “Now I do.”