Allergy Ruling Could Lead to Ban on Pets in Airplane Cabins

By Sarah Schmidt, Canwest News ServiceNovember 4, 2009

Pets are loaded for take-off on the southern California maiden voyage of Pet Airways on Jul. 16, 2009 in the Los Angeles-area city of Hawthorne, California. The new pets-only airline will operate out of Denver, Chicago, Washington, DC and New York. Pet Airways, based in Delray Beach, Florida, is operating a 19-passenger Beech 1900 aircraft in partnership with Suburban Air Freight with the seats removed to carry up to 50 pets in animal crates per flight.

OTTAWA — The government agency overseeing airline consumer complaints is considering declaring allergies a disability — a development that could force Canada’s largest airlines to stop allowing small pets to fly in the passenger cabin with their owners.

The Canadian Transportation Agency is probing four separate complaints involving Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd., Joan MacDonald, the agency’s director general of dispute resolution, said Wednesday during special parliamentary hearings into the pet policies at Canada’s two main airlines.

The federal tribunal will decide whether allowing pets to travel in passenger cabins represents an undue obstacle to transportation for people who suffer from severe pet allergies.

The agency has hired a doctor who is an allergy specialist to prepare a report about allergies related to cat and dog dander to help the agency make a decision, said MacDonald.

“Once the pleadings are complete, the agency will decide on the next course of action, which could include decisions on disability status . . . and possible corrective measures,” MacDonald told members of the House of Commons health committee.

“Certainly, these types of cases are a good example of the increasing complexity we face in determining what constitutes a disability under the Canada Transportation Act.”

Medical experts from the Universities of British Columbia and Ottawa testified that Canada’s largest airlines are putting the lives of passengers at risk by allowing pet owners to bring their small animals into airplane cabins.

The issue has become a pressing one since Air Canada rejoined WestJet in July by upgrading small pets from the baggage compartment to the passenger cabin, they told parliamentarians.

“Although some pet-allergic individual will have only eye or nose symptoms with exposure, cat and dog allergens are major triggers of severe asthma attacks in others. These can be life-threatening and a single exposure, even treated aggressively, can lead to persistent symptoms for days,” Dr. Robert Schellenberg, head of the allergy and immunology division at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, told members of the committee.

“People with allergies can and do have life-threatening asthma attacks, and the risk of having one on an airplane outweighs the purported commercial benefits to the airline of allowing passengers to bring their pets on board,” added Dr. Thomas Kovesi, a pediatric respirologist at the Children’s Hospital for Eastern Ontario and indoor air quality expert at the University of Ottawa.

All airlines are required by federal regulation to allow service animals, such as guide dogs, to travel in passenger cabins, but regular pets aren’t afforded the same treatment.

In the case of Air Canada, the airline kicked pets out of the passenger cabin in September 2006. The following year, Canada’s largest airline stopped allowing pets in the baggage compartment on domestic flights, forcing travellers to put their pets on cargo flights. In May 2008, Air Canada reinstated pets as checked luggage.

In August 2008, the Canadian Transportation Agency upheld Air Canada’s right to ban small pets from the passenger cabin in response to a consumer complaint. But the airline reversed its position a few months ago after facing a barrage of criticism from pet owners, who had the option to travel with their small pets on WestJet flights.

The Calgary-based airline, Air Canada’s main domestic competitor, allows up to two dogs, cats, birds or rabbits to travel in the passenger cabin on every flight.

Jennifer Schenkel, director of communications for the Canadian Lung Association, testified Wednesday that parliamentarians should ask the airlines to ban pets on passenger cabins, except for service animals — just like British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Southwest Airlines.

“People who are disabled by lung disease should not be prevented from travelling on aircraft,” said Schenkel, who testified along with Jill Frigon of the Lung Association of Saskatchewan and Diane Bergeron, a guide dog user.

In cases where a service animal will be present, passengers should be informed in advance and given the option of remaining on the flight or being moved to the next available flight at the cost of the airline, Schenkel said.

“This is not about trying to deny people the privilege of travelling with their pet. Rather, this is about finding an important middle ground that balances the love of our pets with the health and safety of airline passengers and crew while accommodating people who are at risk due to their lung disease.”

A spokesman for Air Canada said the airline does not release statistics on the number of complaints it has fielded or medical incidents related to its pets-in-cabin policy.

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