Cats on the Plane on Air Canada and Westjet

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: July 2, 2010

Sean Callahan had just checked in at a WestJet counter for a 3.5-hour flight from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Toronto, when he turned to see a young woman behind him, carrying a cat carrier. Callahan, whose severe allergy to cat dander triggers his asthma, was shocked to learn that she and her feline friend were fellow passengers.

The check-in attendant told the St. John’s resident that WestJet is a pet-friendly airline – small animals are allowed in the cabin in an enclosed kennel. In fact, there were two other cats on the flight. “I told her, ‘I cannot get on that plane. If I do, I could die,’” recalls Callahan.

He was offered a seat near the back. He explained that moving would make no difference since the air is re-circulated: “I can’t get away from a cat at 30,000 feet.” Callahan was told he could have a seat on the next flight, but turned that down since the airline could not guarantee there would be no cats on that plane.

“So I had two options, get on a WestJet plane and put my life in jeopardy or stay behind.” Instead, Callahan bought a last-minute ticket on the next Air Canada flight, which cost him $1,900 one way. Air Canada does not allow animals to travel in the passenger cabin.

“We’ve made the decision as an airline that we will continue to take them (pets) on board,” explains Richard Bartrem, vice-president of culture and communications at WestJet. “While we empathize with this gentleman’s situation, we will continue to offer this service as a benefit to our guests.”

The risk of a severe reaction for passengers with asthma is relatively low with air travel, according to Dr. Antony Ham Pong, an Ottawa allergist. Dander takes time to accumulate, so the level of dander would depend on how long the cat has been on the plane. “The risk is certainly lower than walking into a house where someone lives with a cat,” he says.

The level of reaction would also depend on a person’s asthma control. “If someone has uncontrolled asthma and he or she is sitting beside a cat, it can lead to big-time trouble,” says Dr. Ham Pong. “It could be fatal. But if his or her asthma is under control, it shouldn’t be a big issue. Just don’t sit next to the cat.”

Travelers should check ahead for pet policies on planes, trains and buses to reduce the risk of an asthma attack, the allergist says, adding that they should always carry their asthma and allergy medication on board, just in case.

Callahan is not content with WestJet’s policy, describing the airline’s attitude toward passengers with severe pet allergies as “terrible.” Although WestJet does post its pet-friendly policy on its website, it’s not easy to find. Callahan would like to see it on the homepage, so others with pet allergies will be well warned. However, Bartem says WestJet has no plans to post a warning on its homepage. So unless that policy changes, at least for this airline, it’s “flyer beware.”

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First published in Breathing Space, a supplement of Allergic Living magazine.
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