Air Canada Unveils Allergy Policy

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

From the archives (Dec. 2, 2010): Air Canada unveiled its first formal food allergy policy on December 2. As reported in Allergic Living magazine, it provides for passengers with peanut or nut allergies to request a small buffer zone to lessen the risk of allergen exposure.

Flight attendants will ask other passengers sitting in the buffer zone to avoid eating nut or peanut products and passengers seated in this zone won’t be offered any snacks from the food cart that contain nut products.

For economy class, a buffer zone will include the row of seats the allergic person is sitting in, as well as the row in front and behind. It does not include those sitting across the aisle. In business class, the buffer zone be simply the bank of seats the person is sitting in.

It’s important to note that arrangements for a buffer zone on an Air Canada flight must be made in advance. The airline’s policy requires those who wish this accommodation to:

– Get a “Fitness for Travel” medical form completed by a physician to confirm the nut or peanut allergy.
– Book at least 48 hours in advance with Air Canada Reservations, advising the agent that you have a “Fitness for Travel” form ready to fax in.

(The airline’s new policy says it “will also make a reasonable effort to accommodate” if a buffer zone request is made in under 48 hours, but Allergic Living strongly recommends making the request farther in advance.)

In a recent conference call with two senior Air Canada representatives, the airline made it clear that the implementation of buffer zones and a formal policy is in response to directives from the Canadian Transportation Agency.

In an October decision on how to accommodate nut- and peanut-allergic passengers, the CTA asked the airline to either agree to the buffer zone concept or “submit a proposal for a reasonable alternative that is equally responsive to the needs of persons disabled by their allergy to peanuts or nuts”.

Air Canada opted for the buffer zone. But in its new policy, which can be read in its entirety here, Air Canada makes clear that on international flights, even within a 3-row buffer zone, it can’t be certain that meals served are nut- or peanut-free, which is something to be aware of.

Air Canada lawyer Louise-Hélène Sénécal spelled out in a letter to the CTA that while it was possible to identify and not sell pre-packaged and labeled snacks containing nuts in the buffer zone, that wasn’t the case for meals on international flights, nor for meals in executive class on all flights.

“The largest worldwide flight caterers, namely Gate Gourmet and LSG Skychef have confirmed that no such guarantee can be made since their own assembly lines as well as those of their main suppliers (e.g. for the casseroles) also source peanut and nut content,” she wrote.

In its new online policy, Air Canada is adamant that it “cannot offer a meal that is nut-/peanut-free”. Gwen Smith, Allergic Living’s editor, thinks the special meal decision is reasonable, noting that allergic persons need to bring their own food any way as the potential for accidental cross-contamination is too high.

Smith is glad to see a formal policy from Canada’s main airline – “the previous policy amounted to bring your meds and we can’t guarantee …”

In January 2009, Allergic Living spearheaded a campaign in which 1,100 individuals wrote letters to the CEOs of both Air Canada and WestJet.

The letters asked for formal allergy policies, so that allergic passengers would find consistency when dealing with airline staff, and the campaign’s key recommendation was that the airline’s flight crew accommodate a nut- or peanut-allergic individual with a general p.a. announcement, in which fellow passengers would simply be asked to refrain from eating the nut or peanut products due to the presence of a passenger with serious allergies.

Air Canada made it clear in its conference call that it does not view this kind of announcement as necessary.

At the CTA hearings, Dr. Peter Vadas and Dr. Gordon Sussman were the two allergists who gave advice about the risks of peanut and nut allergies. They recommended an “exclusion zone” to reduce exposure risks, and Dr. Sussman in addition recommended a general announcement to inform passengers that an individual with nut or peanut allergies was on board. The CTA did not opt to include that recommendation.

“I am disheartened that neither Air Canada nor the CTA found it advisable to ask fellow passengers to simply refrain from eating such allergenic snacks for the few hours of most flights,” Smith said. “Those of us who lobbied the airlines are not asking for the allergy police or for guarantees about the snacking habits of other passengers. Just let them know when someone with a serious condition is onboard at 35,000 feet.

“When it’s a snack versus risk of anaphylaxis, most people don’t find this such a big hardship – we know this from airlines that make such announcements,” she said.

Coming Soon: Frequently Asked Questions about Air Canada’s Policy

Please leave your question in the Comments.