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Pet-friendly skies not so kind to allergy sufferers Add to ...

Air Canada seems to be forever flirting with financial ruin, but it has a curious idea for getting out of the quandary.

I am referring, of course, to the airline's decision to allow pets in the passenger cabin.

Since July 1, cats and dogs weighing up to 10 kilograms have been allowed to be stowed under seats as a carry-on item on Air Canada and Jazz flights. The new policy reverses one from 2006, when pets were relegated to the luggage hold.

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"This is the latest of our customer-friendly initiatives that underscores our renewed commitment to listening to our customers and offering a competitive product that meets their needs," said Ben Smith, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer at Air Canada, in a written statement.

Frequent fliers know all too well that "customer-friendly" and "Air Canada" are not terms that commingle comfortably.

This move is about money. Flying with Fido at your feet will cost $50 on Canadian and U.S. routes and $100 on international flights.

That is less than half the price it costs to stow pets in the hold, and it is clearly designed to woo potential customers who are reluctant to leave their furry friends behind.

But a much heavier price will be paid by travellers with allergies, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Air inside airplane cabins re-circulates - it gets recycled through the vents. Even though the air is filtered and mixed with outside air, allergens such as hair, saliva and dander from pets can spread throughout the cabin. Allergens can potentially reach every passenger on the plane, even people sitting far away from pets.

"If someone brings a dog or cat onto an airplane and there's someone with asthma on board, it can trigger a potentially fatal asthma attack," said Peter MacLeod, medical spokesperson for the Canadian Lung Association.

"From our perspective it is better to be safe now with the health of Canadian travellers and air crew than sorry later."

The Lung Association has launched a campaign to get Air Canada (and its chief competitor, WestJet, which already allows pets in the cabin) to review their policies. Details of the online petition can be found at www.lung.ca.

More than three million Canadians live with serious respiratory diseases such as asthma and COPD, and one million Canadians have severe allergies.

The Lung Association obviously has a vested interest in this issue, but the poll it commissioned - which shows that 80 per cent of Canadians favour pet-free flights - cannot be dismissed casually. The public seems to understand better than Air Canada brass what is at stake here.

There is obviously a clash, one that pits pet lovers against the asthmatic and/or allergic.

Regardless of the policy implemented by airlines, somebody is going to be unhappy. But in balancing conflicting interests, it is essential to give more weight to health concerns than to those of convenience.

Air Canada has made some efforts to find a compromise: It has limited the size of pets allowed in the cabin, and also their numbers.

It should be acknowledged, too, that the vast majority of pet owners recognize they should leave their furry friends at home, or have them travel in cargo. Air Canada estimates that only 1 per cent of its customers will avail themselves of the new rules.

But on matters of health and safety, there should not be compromise. The risks are too high to cater to that very tiny minority who want carry-on pets in a bid to bring in a few dollars to a troubled air carrier.

This issue cannot be viewed in isolation, either. It is part of a larger battle to make the skies safer for the growing legions of children and adults who have severe allergies or respiratory conditions.

Air Canada and its competitors are far too dismissive of their real concerns, stubbornly insisting on selling and serving foods that can trigger the most severe allergic reactions.

The Canadian magazine Allergic Living has launched a "reduce-the-risk" campaign and posted detailed information on the policies of many airlines.

It is not suggesting the entire world be made nut-free, latex-free, pet-free or allergen-free, but that airlines develop clear, consistent policies to minimize the risk of in-flight reactions.

Too much onus has been placed on passengers with respiratory illnesses: expecting them to ask if there are pets on board and change flights if they are uncomfortable, and to self-treat with epinephrine in auto-injectors if they suffer anaphylaxis.

In the airline industry, there is an obsession with safety - and rightly so. That mentality should be extended to the on-board environment.

It is time for a broader discussion of the issue, and the suggestion by the Lung Association that public hearings be held by Parliament's health committee to consider the health implications of allowing pets to travel in airplane cabins would be an excellent start.

This is, after all, a matter of life and breath.

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