Pets shouldn't trump airline passengers, says Nunavut woman with cat allergy

Bernadette Dean has a severe cat allergy and alerted Calm Air when she saw two cats would be on her flight. She says the airline told her to re-book. 'The cat is a priority before me?'

Bernadette Dean says airlines should notify passengers about animals on board, but that's not policy

Bernadette Dean has a severe cat allergy and alerted Calm Air when she saw two cats would be on her flight. She says the airline told her to re-book.

Are pets more important than passengers?

That's what a Nunavut woman is asking after she complained about a cat allergy on a recent flight with two felines on board.

Bernadette Dean was travelling from Winnipeg to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, on Calm Air earlier this month when she noticed two cats in carriers at the airline counter in the airport.

Dean says she had a serious reaction to a cat on a flight last year — her face got red and swollen and she had trouble breathing.

When Dean told the agent for Calm Air that she's severely allergic, she says she was told she would have to re-book her flight.

"The cat is a priority before me? Is she the boss?" Dean said in an interview in Inuktitut.

A cat in a carrier bound for air travel. On Calm Air flights, it costs $50 plus tax to bring your animal in the cabin. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

"I was told it is a paying customer and they want me to book the next flight. I thought that was a bit too much."

Dean could not afford to stay in a hotel for another night in Winnipeg, so she took a risk, bought allergy medication, and went on the flight.

Dean says she made it home a bit groggy, but was otherwise fine. She says airlines should notify their passengers if there are going to be animals in the cabin on their flight.

Pets have rights, too

Bridget Anderson, director of customer service for the Thompson, Man.-based regional airline, says passengers travelling with pets are required to book them in advance. An animal travelling in the cabin costs $50 plus tax and is treated like carry-on luggage; it must conform to the size and weight restrictions.

If all that checks out, Anderson says those passengers have the same rights as others. 

"We don't have the right to offload somebody," Anderson says.

Gabor Lukacs, an air passenger rights advocate, says airlines have an obligation to accommodate disabilities, but it's up to the passenger to notify the airline in advance. (CBC)

"If someone pays for a ticket and they've registered their pet with us in advance, we don't have the right to tell them that they can't travel now because there's somebody on board that has an allergy."

Anderson says many passengers prefer to stow their pets in the cabin rather than in the cargo hold — for convenience and because it's safer for small animals like cats, birds and even gerbils.

Anderson said the airline can't guarantee an allergen-free environment, but it tries to accommodate travellers with allergies. 

"If a customer came to us and expressed concerns that they had a specific allergy… we could certainly offer to move that passenger to another flight."

Passengers should notify airlines

Gabor Lukacs, an air passenger rights advocate, says airlines have an obligation to accommodate disabilities, which include allergies, under rules set by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA). However, in many cases it's up to the passenger to notify the airline in advance of their needs.

"Passengers with allergies should advise of their allergies weeks or days in advance," Lukacs said.

"Generally if a passenger gives notice to an airline that they need to be accommodated, then that will have priority over the right of animals.

If Dean didn't give the airline advance notice, and Calm Air offered to rebook her for free, Lukacs says "that's all she's entitled to in that situation."

There are currently no policies in place for airlines when it comes to dogs in cabins and travellers with allergies. (Getty)

After Air Canada started allowing pets in cabins again in 2009, the CTA says it investigated two cat allergy complaints against that airline and Air Canada Jazz. It investigated a third complaint against WestJet.

The agency said the airlines should "provide people with a cat allergy disability with an appropriate accommodation." 

The agency said with at least 48 hours notice from allergy-sufferers, Air Canada and WestJet must provide a five-row minimum seating separation between the person with an allergy and the cat, and should make best efforts to comply with that measure with less notice.

On Air Canada's smaller Dash 8-100/300 aircraft, which is not equipped with high efficiency ventilation or filtration systems, cats are banned from travelling in the cabin if passengers give 48 hours notice of an allergy.

Those rules don't apply to Calm Air or other smaller airlines, and they don't apply to dogs.

Ruling appealed

The CTA investigated a dog complaint against Air Canada in February 2012.

The complainant said she had informed the airline of her allergy in advance of her flight and at check-in, but a passenger carrying a dog was seated in front of her. The woman had an allergy attack.

In its decision, the agency found that the airline's policy created an "undue obstacle" for the complainant and ordered it to accommodate people with allergy disabilities.

Air Canada drafted corrective measures, including a five-seat separation, but also appealed the decision — and won.

The complainant subsequently withdrew her application and the case was closed.

With files from Salome Avva


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