Summer 2015 –
When it comes to accommodating passengers flying with nut allergies, Canada’s WestJet Airlines has set the gold standard. Since 2011, the company has operated under a unique, well-organized peanut and nut allergy-conscious policy. The amount of information and detail that they provide passengers with is unparalleled. From the filtration system to cabin cleaning and food manufacturing processes, WestJet aggressively addresses anything that might trigger on-board nut allergy reactions. Notable guidelines from the policy include:
- Carrying epinephrine auto-injectors on board all aircraft
- Not serving nut-based products to customers (although the airline cannot guarantee that onboard snacks do not contain trace amounts).
- Requesting that guests seated within two rows of an allergy sufferer not consume food products with nuts
- Making a public address announcement prior to take-off informing all customers that they are traveling with a peanut or nut allergy sufferer, and asking them to refrain from opening or consuming peanuts or nuts during the flight.
We caught up with the Public Relations Manager for WestJet, Robert Palmer, via email to check in on the success of the four-year-old policy, and to see how Canadian travelers have responded to what might some might consider an inconvenience.
According to Palmer, in 2014, of the nearly 2,100 events on WestJet aircraft that required the services of MedAire, an in-flight medical services provider, only 56 of them were considered serious and allergy-related (about 2 percent). The majority of allergy-related incidents, Palmer said, appear to have been caused by food (usually consumed before boarding), bug or animal bites, interactions with pets or certain cleaning chemicals on board, as well as some miscellaneous cases. Most were treatable by antihistamine or similar medications. WestJet operates approximately 180,000 to 200,000 flights a year, serving about 20 million people.
Here are the highlights of the conversation Allergy Safe Travel had with Palmer:
Allergy Safe Travel: Has WestJet had to make any emergency landings due to allergy-related incidents since you put this policy in place? Have those occurred any less often since you implemented your policy?
Robert Palmer: No. To the best of our knowledge, we’ve never had to divert or make an emergency landing for an allergy-related event, although we do divert aircraft in cases where there are other potentially life-threatening medical emergencies on board (e.g.. heart attacks, strokes, etc.).
AST: What kind of response have you gotten from non-allergic customers regarding this policy? Are they mostly compliant in making sure allergy sufferers are in a safe environment?
RP: Although we don’t “track” reactions to various policies, it would be difficult to assess with complete certainty the responses we’ve received. Anecdotally, I don’t think we’ve really had any response one way or another, but that is probably due to the fact that we do not serve nuts on our aircraft. Generally speaking, when I fly (50-75 times per year) I don’t see guests bringing them on board very often. This doesn’t surprise me, given the overall heightened public sensitivity around nut-related allergies. There may be some difference between Canada and the U.S. here, since some U.S. airlines still serve nuts and the overall public view may be different.
AST: Have you faced any backlash to this policy from customers? If so, could you describe a particular incident?
RP: No, not to my knowledge. Again, I believe Canadians are accustomed to this heightened awareness.
AST: Is WestJet incurring any sort of extra financial burden from being peanut/nut allergy-conscious?
RP: No, at least not directly. Our strict requirements for our vendors to adhere to our allergy approach likely create more expense for them, however.
AST: In general, is it difficult at any level of the company hierarchy (from executives to flight attendants) to implement such a policy? What are some of the challenges an airline faces when it decides to do so?
RP: WestJet’s corporate culture is one based on care and our approach to allergies is a natural extension of that culture. There was support at all levels of the company when we took this approach.
AST: Has the airline considered expanding this policy to be more accommodating for customers with other allergies?
RP: No, not at this time.
AST: Do you see WestJet as a model that other airlines should follow in this regard, and do you expect your competitors to follow suit with similar policies in the coming years?
RP: No one solution will fit every situation, and what one airline does may not necessarily work for another. We are pleased with our approach, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that others should follow.
Palmer also wanted to add: “One trend I came across that I felt I should mention is the number of allergic guests who did not have their EpiPens with them on board. I was surprised to see how often these guests had put them in their checked baggage, which is obviously not accessible while in flight, rather than in their carry-on baggage. We always recommend that guests who require (or may require) medication always keep it with them.”
WestJet’s full policy can be read at the following link: http://www.westjet.com/guest/en/travel/special-arrangements/special-needs/allergies.shtml
By: Andrew Brown