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Reserve nut-free seats, watchdog tells Air Canada Add to ...

Sophia Huyer flies frequently for her job as an international consultant and because of her severe nut allergy, she packs more than just a suitcase.

Ms. Huyer, who lives in Cobourg, Ont., always carries an EpiPen to counteract allergic reactions, and takes antihistamines for asthma. She also alerts airlines about her condition and explains her situation to fellow passengers when necessary.

Despite those precautions, many of her trips have been "a bit of a nightmare." She has gotten off some planes after flight attendants refused her request not to serve nuts and once had to sign a waiver absolving the crew of any blame should she have a reaction during the flight. She even spent 40 minutes in the bathroom during one flight while the crew handed out nut snacks.

"It adds to the stress of flying, let me tell you," Ms. Huyer said. "I can't stop flying unless I change professions."

Now the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) is taking up the issue in response to complaints from Ms. Huyer and another traveller about Air Canada. The federal agency has directed the airline to come up with a plan to create a buffer zone for passengers who have nut allergies.

"The agency is concerned by the lack of a formal policy to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities due to their allergy to peanuts or nuts," the CTA said in a ruling made public Thursday.

"The agency is of the opinion that in making their travel plans, persons with disabilities are entitled to the same certainty that other people enjoy of being able to travel as scheduled."

Air Canada has 30 days to produce a plan, or challenge the decision. A spokesman for the airline said it is reviewing the directive and will respond soon. While the decision applies only to Air Canada, other airlines are expected to follow suit.

Air Canada stopped offering peanuts years ago but the airline still offers other nuts, including cashews and almonds. The company also told the CTA that it cannot guarantee that its meals are peanut-free. Other airlines have different policies: WestJet Airlines Ltd. has stopped serving nuts altogether and other companies will take them off flights if requested.

The CTA stopped short of recommending a ban on nuts, saying that would "serve to provide passengers with allergies to nuts with a false sense of security as it would be impossible to guarantee that other passengers would not bring nuts, or products which contain nuts, on board the aircraft." The agency added that "in their daily life, persons with allergies must deal with the risk of exposure to allergens and take measures to mitigate allergic reactions."

Instead, the agency said Air Canada should create "an exclusion or buffer zone where passengers within that zone will be advised that they can only eat foods that are peanut-free or nut-free and that they will only be offered peanut-free or nut-free foods as part of Air Canada's onboard snack or meal service."

If the zone cannot be provided because of operational issues, or because the passenger has not given sufficient notice, the airline may need to "reassess the seating plan for the flight and may need to arrange for a replacement snack within the buffer zone." If that isn't possible, Air Canada should "place the passenger on the next practicable flight and provide a buffer zone at that time."

During its review, the CTA heard from two allergy experts who discussed the hazards faced by people with nut allergies. Dr. Gordon Sussman, a professor at the University of Toronto, told the agency that allergic reactions can range from skin irritation to cardiac failure and that "only a minute quantity or brief exposure to an allergen is necessary to cause a "major immunologic event."

The CTA was told there are other major food allergies, but that nut allergies are often much more severe and can be life-threatening.

While Dr. Sussman recommended a ban on all nuts, he acknowledged "that an allergen-free environment would be impossible to implement."

The CTA also reviewed whether the air circulated on planes poses a problem. It concluded that airplane filter systems significantly reduce the risk of "an allergic reaction due to the inhalation of peanut or nut particles".

Ms. Huyer said she has had some close calls during flights and she isn't happy with the CTA's decision. She wants a complete ban.

"It's a very dangerous situation and a buffer zone is not enough," she said. "In grade schools, if there's a child with an nut allergy, nuts are banned either from the classroom or from the entire school because that's how dangerous it is." In an airplane, "you are looking at a very small close contained space that's 35 000 feet in the air," she said.

Ms. Huyer plans to respond to the CTA decision and she hopes others will join her effort to ban nuts. "It's too dangerous a situation to let this slide."

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