Nova Scotia

Woman removed from Air Canada flight after crew wrongly believed her rash was contagious

An Edmonton woman visiting Halifax says she was removed from an Air Canada flight after the crew wrongly assumed she had a contagious disease.

Jeanne Lehman upset at her treatment by flight crew over shingles rash on her face

Jeanne Lehman says she first started seeing signs of a rash on her forehead after arriving in Halifax. Despite being told by a doctor she was free to be around others, Air Canada staff removed her from a flight to Toronto and moved the other passengers to a different aircraft. (CBC)

An Edmonton woman visiting Halifax says she was removed from an Air Canada flight after the crew wrongly assumed she had a contagious disease.

On Sunday evening, an Air Canada flight between Halifax and Toronto was delayed from 6:25 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday, which the airline says was because "a passenger was believed to have a transmissible skin disease." 

That passenger was Jeanne Lehman, who says she started feeling unwell and developing a rash on her forehead after arriving in Halifax on Wednesday. 

Lehman says she was only seated for a few moments when a flight attendant dressed in a mask and gloves asked her to gather her belongings and leave the plane. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Over the next two days the rash spread to the area around her eye, so she visited a walk-in clinic and the QEII Health Sciences Centre emergency department. Doctors there gave her antiviral medication and told her it was fine for her to be around other people. Lehman said later she was diagnosed with shingles, which is not contagious.

(Infectious disease doctors say it is impossible to transmit shingles, although in certain circumstances a person in direct contact with someone with shingles can catch chicken pox if the blisters are open.) 

Removal from flight 

On Sunday evening, she tried to board a plane to go home to Edmonton. By that time her eye was quite puffy and she felt self-conscious about the condition of her face, so she asked if she could be seated beside a window. 

"When I arrived on the plane, I saw the flight attendant. I asked her, I said, 'Please, if you have a seat by the window ... I would like please to have that favour to give me that place. Because I'm not contagious, but I don't want people to see this side of my face. It is damaged,"' Lehman said Monday. 

Lehman said she was only seated for a few moments when the flight attendant came back dressed in a mask and gloves, and asked Lehman to bring her belongings and follow her off the plane. 

Lehman stayed in Halifax overnight and boarded another Air Canada flight the day after being removed from the flight. (CBC)

"Then she said to me, 'You are contagious. You said you are contagious, so I cannot leave you in the plane. Just follow me.' Then I said to her, 'First of all, I'm not contagious. You don't have to scream it like what you're doing right now.'"

'It was bizarre'

Other passengers said announcements were made about a passenger with a contagious disease, and they observed staff disinfecting the area where Lehman had been seated. Eventually everyone was deplaned. 

"It was bizarre," said Susan McAlister, a Toronto resident. "I started to feel angry that she had been treated this way." 

McAlister does not know Lehman but said they struck up a conversation about Lehman's eye while waiting to board. Lehman told McAlister she had been seen by doctors and it was fine for her to be around others. McAlister said she also judged the condition was not infectious because of her own background. 

"As a nurse, I wasn't worried because I knew that she wasn't. I had observed her physical state. None of her things were weeping. It wasn't contagious," McAlister said. 

A doctor at the QEII emergency room gave Lehman this prescription deeming her fit to fly. (Submitted by Jeanne Lehman)

Second trip to hospital

Lehman said she attempted to explain that she had been seen by doctors but she was taken by Air Canada staff to the QEII hospital where she was seen again late on Sunday evening.

In a statement to CBC News on Sunday night, an Air Canada spokesperson explained the decision was made to take Lehman to the ER "after consulting our medical experts." 

"Out of an abundance of caution passengers on board were also asked to disembark and a different aircraft will transport them later [Sunday]. We regret the inconvenience but this was deemed a necessary precaution taken after consultation with doctors and we will follow up with customers directly if they have any concerns," wrote Peter Fitzpatrick. 

Lehman said a doctor at the ER on Sunday night said she had shingles and that she was clear to fly, although it was so late that Air Canada chose to put her on a flight the next day. She was given a hotel room overnight, along with food vouchers. 

Asking more questions

McAlister said before the other passengers left Halifax an announcement was made over the PA system that Lehman's condition was not contagious. Both she and Lehman want to know why staff did not ask more questions to understand the situation. 

"Yes, have safety of people in heart. This is very normal. I don't blame that. But the thing is, they should have another type of protocol. They are not doctors," said Lehman. 

"They said 'Oh, maybe because I don't speak English.' Yes, I know maybe my English is not perfect because I am a French speaker," she said. "But if my English is not perfect, Air Canada is bilingual. If the flight attendant cannot understand what I am saying, maybe she should have called someone else who could explain that." 

Air Canada said it could not elaborate on Lehman's case. 

"For privacy reasons we cannot provide details about individual customers, but we can confirm that once the passenger received medical clearance she was able to travel," it said in a statement.

"Our priority is always the health and safety of our customers and employees, so we acted out of an abundance of caution. Regrettably, the situation resulted in inconvenience for some customers and we will be dealing with them directly."

'Psychologically, that affects me'

Lehman said the incident troubled her deeply, and she keeps going over it in her mind. 

"Psychologically, that affects me. I couldn't sleep all this night," she said, although her friends and family advised her to try to rest. 

"Every time I would wake up and go, why did they do that? Why did this lady? She doesn't know me. Why did that happen?"

Lehman said she is tired but not in pain. She was able to board another flight home on Monday.