Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What's All the Fuss About Air Canada's New Allergy Policy?

Late last week Air Canada released a story about it's new policy with regard to nut allergies. Read the full story here.

Air Canada, which does not serve peanuts but does serve tree nuts, will now offer a buffer zone of 3 rows for passengers with severe peanut and/or tree nut allergies. This is because they do not ask passengers not to bring these food items on board, so nut-allergic passengers will still be at risk. The buffer is intended to keep severely allergic people from having reactions in flight.

If you were to read the message board comments that follow the above story (and I don't suggest that you do, they're the same old "peanut allergies are fake" "it's Darwin's natural selection at work" and my favorite: "it's a grand tradition to serve peanuts on airplanes.")

I'm not sure why there is a furor now taking place in Canada over this policy, since many airlines already either don't serve peanuts in flight or they also employ the buffer zone policy. What's the big deal? It also used to be a grand tradition to smoke on airplanes, but that "tradition" is gone and what of it? Maybe our lungs are a little cleaner than they would have been.

The other big argument about peanut/nut policies on airplanes is that, because airplanes are a public conveyance, those with allergies have no right to be accommodated. However, I would argue that because an airplane is a public conveyance, everyone that can be accommodated should be. It's not going to harm a non-allergic person's health if they don't eat peanuts or tree nuts for a short period of time--it will harm an allergic person to have too much exposure to these foods. Of course no airline can guarantee that you won't have an allergic reaction or that some passengers will insist on bringing nutty foods on the plane. But the airlines set the tone--if they make a policy and stick to it (like no smoking) then people will just get used to it and accept it.

Airlines already accommodate requests for many common and potentially serious allergies that can cause respiratory distress, not just nut allergies. People allergic to pets should know that many airlines won't allow more than 4 pets in the cabin and will reassign seats for allergic flyers. Also, some airlines state that people with sensitivities to perfumes may change seats. Check this airplane policy guideline from Allergic Living magazine for a list of airlines and their policies.

Peanut and tree nut airline policies and the public's negative reaction to them can be upsetting for parents and caregivers of nut-allergic kids and for the many allergic adults who fly for business or pleasure. However, just like no smoking policies and ramps/parking spaces for physically disabled people have become accepted public policy norms, this big airplane brouhaha will someday blow over. The idea that people with nut allergies can solve the problem and "choose not to fly" as many who don't have allergies themselves have suggested, is discriminatory and unrealistic. For example: Can you imagine, in this day and age, saying to a person--"Sorry, because you're in the minority, we can't make this public building accessible to you. You may choose to avoid public buildings. That's your choice." No--of course not. But back in the 1970s, people protested making buildings (and parking spaces) convenient to physically disabled people. Why? Because they were a "special interest group." Sound familiar?

As passengers requiring nut allergy accommodations, we should feel free to ask for alternative snacks to be served or buffer zones to be offered. Tolerance doesn't happen overnight, but policy changes made for the health of passengers need not further divide us. It's just peanuts, after all. Have a nice flight.


Sean said...

I read the article and comments you link to a few days ago, and also posted a comment on the article in support of the policy.

As you point out, this is all becoming predictable. Any article about peanut allergies is met with a similar mixture of disbelief, misinformation, and outright hostility. Just look at the voting on the comments on that article -- the anti-allergy ones are being voted up, the pro-tolerance ones are being voted down. It's frustrating.

But here's a (potentially controversial) thought... At what point do we have to stop asking "What's wrong with all these people?", and start asking "What's wrong with us, and the way we're getting our message out?"

I mean, we have a debate between "creating a potentially life-threatening situation for thousands of people, including small children" on the one hand, and "being forced to hold off for a few hours before you eat your bag of trail mix" on the other. It shouldn't be a hard debate to win. And yet we're clearly not winning, at least with the general public.

Something's gone really, really wrong somewhere along the line. Hasn't it?

Jenny said...


Thanks for your insightful comments. You have some very good points.

I know what you mean about our failure to get this message out effectively and I think there are a few reasons for this, not all of it "our" fault and some of it no one's fault.

Food is an extremely personal thing--what people choose to ingest in their bodies is for many, the final frontier of civil liberty. So they'd be upset if you told them they couldn't eat fresh roadkill--it's just the idea that you're telling them "no."

Also, in the past year there have been so many sketchy reports of so called experimental peanut allergy cures and now the latest--that allergy tests for peanut allergy are just loaded with false positives. OK, well, much of this has yet to be truly substantiated but people believe what they read--especially if they think it supports their own intolerance.

On the bright side, I don't believe the message board "haters" represent the beliefs of the majority of people. Think about it--if they are not directly affected by the issue (as we are) then many folks on message boards are just being cranks because they are probably pretty anti-social in real life and are looking for any venue in which to be extreme. I think they represent a vocal "fringe" although some of their comments seem to be repeated by many.

Here's where I think we can help our cause--by being firm but moderate. We have to reassure people that we understand their concerns but that nut allergies are a real medical condition and we need to protect ourselves and/or our kids. Keep playing the cracked record, but calmly. Human beings don't like change as a rule but over time they can accept changes. And I will be hopeful that the acceptance is sooner rather than later.

Again, Sean, thank you. You've given us a lot to consider.

Lisita said...

Wow! I know my daughter has had problems on flights even when they didn't serve peanuts because the previous flight did serve them. Luckily benadryl was sufficient. It's sad that more people don't understand and yet I've seen people in my own life make great strides in kindness and understanding to our situation.

Jenny said...

Lisita, you bring up a great point about why I wish that airlines would adopt a consistent "no peanuts/tree nuts" policy. The planes are not cleaned between flights, so the residue and matter is still all over the plane, causing potential problems. This could happen for any allergy--in my case, I'd have problems if I got on an airplane recently vacated by 200 cats. I'd have breathing problems for sure.

I'm glad you've been OK on airplanes and very smart that you had Benadryl on hand!

Karen said...

Many people who are called intolerant, are really trollers. Trollers go around making remarks just to get a responce and push peoples buttons. Trollers are just as likely to post that tall people don't have the right to longer pants, or dwarfs should not have children, as to post nut allergies are meaningless.