Q&A: WestJet and Food Allergies

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: December 9, 2010

Published: Dec. 9/10

westjetRobert 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 [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