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Q&A: WestJet and Food Allergies

Published: Dec. 9/10

westjet [1]Robert Palmer, WestJet’s manager of public relations, spoke with Allergic Living’s Gwen Smith about the details of his airline’s new forward-thinking food allergy policy.

Allergic Living: I have to start by asking: Why did WestJet make these few policy changes that are quite groundbreaking in terms of food allergy accommodation?

Robert Palmer: “I think the Allergic Living write-in campaign [2] [to WestJet and Air Canada] made us aware that this was perhaps a more serious issue within the allergy community than we may have thought. And that’s the role of allergy advocacy.

“As an airline, we try always to strike a balance based on the information we have, to make the best decisions we can at the time. But that’s not to say that we ever have all of the information that we need, and so it was helpful to have brought this to our attention.

“[That] caused us to take a serious look at whether our policy was the best that it could be, given that we have so many constituencies to serve within our guest community. That’s always the challenge.”

AL: It’s pleasantly surprising to hear that the voices of the community made a difference.

RP: “Well, policies are living, breathing documents and we need to look at them when new information arises that suggests perhaps a change is in order. With respect to the work Allergic Living did, that’s what raised the profile of the issue. The letters [from the allergy community] made a big difference. I still have them at my desk. They’re a constant reminder that this is an extremely important issue.”

AL mentions that people won’t be aware, but WestJet’s talks with the allergy community – including allergy groups and well-known allergists and organized by Anaphylaxis Canada – about potential policy changes have gone on intermittently since last March. WestJet discussed in the talks that it was complicated both with internal communcations and in a highly regulated industry to make sure something as simple as a one-minute p.a. announcement could be done.

RP: “They (Transport Canada) don’t care if we say: ‘And happy birthday to Ted in Row 6C’, but if we’re going to institutionalize a formal announcement as part of our ‘suite of announcements’, it has to be approved and then translated (English and French). And then it has to go into the Flight Attendants’ Manual or FAM.”

Booking with Allergy Accommodations

AL: Let’s talk about some of the specifics of flying under your new policy. With booking, you need to go through the Reservations centre?

RP: “Yes. They can identify themselves as having the nut or peanut allergy, and then a special coding will be put on their file that identifies them as having that allergy.

AL: But should you still tell Reservations every time if it’s on your file?

RP: “I would, just to be on the safe side.”

AL: So Reservations is aware of the allergy accommodations request. Now the person is boarding. When do you approach the flight attendant about the p.a. announcement?

RP: “I would do it as quickly as possible either while boarding or while people are getting settled but before the doors close. The flight attendants have got a few minutes because they’re walking up and down the aisles, helping people stow their bags. That’s the time.”

AL: Do you need to alert the crew at the gate before boarding.

RP: “I’m not sure there’s much point as those people are not going to be on the flight.”

Next: Buffer Zones and EpiPens

AL: WestJet has offered an allergy buffer zone for a couple of years now. Does that get requested much?

RP: “Only rarely gets requested, but it’s still in place. The p.a. announcement is an enhancement, not a replacement.”

AL: What if someone wants the announcement only, not the buffer zone?

RP: “If the guest doesn’t want it, there would be no reason for us to do it.”

AL: You’re also going to have EpiPens onboard now as emergency backup auto-injectors.

RP: “We have announcements, the buffer zones, and the EpiPens will start to be loaded onto the planes this week.”

AL: Are the flight attendants being trained on the EpiPens?

RP says they are, but since there are 2,500 flight attendants that will take a while. He points out that even with an EpiPen available, the flight attendant won’t just use it – the industry protocol is to first ask if there is a doctor or nurse onboard.

RP: “It’s quite surprising how often there is a medical person onboard.” He explains that, in a medical emergency, established protocol is that all of the flight crew works together simultaneously: “One is on the phone to MedLink, one is making the announcement to find out if there’s a medical person onboard, one of them is with the guest, trying to help them as best they can, and one is talking to the captain.”

AL: Any last thoughts on food allergy accommodations?

RP: “Even though we’re never able to guarantee an allergen-free environment, we feel that doing what we’ve done in terms of making the aircraft as safe as possible, that’s simply the right thing to do.”