This evening I read about a rather humourous decision handed down by the Canadian Transportation Agency regarding Air Canada’s accommodation of food allergy sufferers. There’s nothing intrinsically humourous about the decision itself, but it becomes funny when paired with Air Canada’s reaction to another class of allergy sufferers. First, have a look at the precautions mandated for the nut-allergic. The airline has to provide a nut-free zone around the allergy sufferer, the scope of which depends on their class of ticket.
For people in executive first class, the buffer zone will consist of the pod-seat occupied by the person with allergies. In North American business class seating, the buffer zone will consist of the bank of seats in which the allergic person is seated. In economy class, the buffer zone will consist of the bank of seats in which the allergic person is seated as well as the banks of seats directly in front of and behind the person.
People who wish to receive special accommodation should notify the airline within 48 hours of their flights, the ruling said.
— McGinn, Dave. “Air Canada told to create nut-free buffer zones.” Globe & Mail, 19 October 2010.
As with all things in life, though, some special accommodations are more special than others. If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis due to contact with nut oils and particles, you get a nut-free buffer zone that the airline is responsible for policing. If you’re at risk of anaphylaxis due to contact with animal dander and saliva, you get no buffer zone, and it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get stuck somewhere where your allergens might be present.
VANCOUVER — Air Canada is standing firm on its new policy to allow cats and small dogs to travel in passenger cabins, despite health concerns from people who suffer from pet allergies.
…”We believe our policy is prudent,” [Air Canada spokeswoman Angela] Mah said.
On its website, Air Canada says it is sensitive to the concerns of allergy sufferers and asks that travellers with pet allergies advise a check-in agent of their allergy to ensure they are not seated next to a customer with a dog or cat.
— O’Brian, Amy. “Air Canada to Lung Association: don’t hold your breath over pet policy.” Canwest News Service, 2010 (?) [Emphasis mine]
If you’re curious, as I am, about how many people might be afflicted with nut allergies versus pet-allergies, there’s some baseline data in this Globe & Mail article. It states that the first-ever nationwide study (published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) indicates that 2.5 million Canadians—or 7.5 percent of the population—have food allergies. Specifically, 1.93% have peanut allergies, and 2.36% have tree nut allergies, for a grand total of 4.29% of the Canadian population (or roughly 1.46 million people).
And what about pet allergies? That’s harder to nail down, but this editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites a figure of one in ten people. If we took that to mean ten percent of the Canadian population, that would be 3.4 million souls, or more than twice as many pet-allergic people as there are nut-allergic people. Yet the pet-allergic are responsible for policing themselves, while the nut-allergic get to have the airline do it for them.
The CMAJ editorial also hints at why Air Canada is intent on keeping pets in the cabin, despite evidence of potential harm:
Travellers in Canada lost their access to dander-free flights in July 2009, when Air Canada reversed its prohibition against allowing small pets, including cats, dogs and birds, to travel in the airplane cabin. The apparent motivation was competition from Canada’s other large airline, WestJet, which reportedly has pets on about 25% of its flights. (Service animals, whose infrequent presence on airplanes is mandated by disability considerations, are not an issue.)
…Seating passengers with allergies away from pets is not a realistic alternative. Pet dander remains on seats long after the pet and its owner have gone. One study identified clinically relevant concentrations of cat allergen on 100% of sampled airplane seats on domestic flights and 16% of seats on international flights [Martin IR, Wickens K, Patchett K, et al. Cat allergen levels in public places in New Zealand. N Z Med J 1998;111:356-8] Moreover, flights are usually filled to capacity, and airlines have not created mechanisms to facilitate last minute seat changes.
— Stanbrook et al. “Pets in airplane cabins: an unnecessary allergic hazard.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, 16 February 2010. [Emphasis mine]
In other words it’s purely a revenue consideration. Mapleflot will lose seats to Westjet if they don’t allow pets to travel in the passenger cabin.
One hopes that either the Canadian Transportation Agency or Air Canada itself will recognise that differing standards and treatments for various classes of allergy sufferers will inevitably lead to a cavalcade of me-tooism from those treated unequally. That way lies madness. Either all allergy sufferers are responsible for policing their own health, or none of them are; it seems unwise and frankly incomprehensible to have a double standard of this sort.