TORONTO - Airline passengers with pet allergies should not be forced to share cabin space with dogs and cats, says an editorial published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Last summer, Air Canada changed its policy to allow cats and small dogs to travel in the cabin, aligning itself with a WestJet policy.
"Surveys have shown that there's widespread public support for keeping pets off airplanes, in the cabins, and for those reasons we feel strongly that this is a public health issue that really needs to be addressed thoughtfully," said Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, a respirologist who co-wrote the editorial.
"Given the importance of air travel for Canadians and those who travel through Canadian airspace, we think that Air Canada needs to rethink its decision or be made to do so by government agencies."
The Canadian Transportation Agency has received several complaints about the furry four-legged travellers. Alexandre Robertson, a senior communications adviser, said three complaints involve Air Canada, and a fourth pertains to both Air Canada and WestJet.
"Members of the agency are examining those complaints, and we'll issue decisions as required," he said.
The CMAJ editorial argues that if the agency doesn't rule in favour of the passengers, then the House of Commons standing committee on health should take up the cause.
An allergic reaction can range from mild to life-threatening, said Stanbrook, who routinely sees patients with allergies at the Asthma and Airway Centre at the University Health Network in Toronto.
When someone has an anaphylactic reaction, breathing can be affected and emergency assistance is needed, he said.
"That's bad enough when it happens on ground level," he said. "If it happens in an airplane, far removed from any emergency measures and maybe hours away from landing, that could be very, very serious indeed, and possibly fatal."
For this reason, he said airlines have an "extra duty of care" to ensure their environments are allergen free.
Estimates suggest at least 10 per cent of people are allergic to pets, with cat allergies being most common, Stanbrook noted.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline has had three complaints and isn't aware of any serious allergic reactions.
"I can tell you generally that we do not carry a lot of pets in the cabin - it is a negligible amount in the context of our traffic," he said in an email.
As well, the number of people changing flights because of a pet on the roster of their original flight is "quite small," he said. The airline typically carries between 80,000 and 100,000 passengers a day.
As for pet passengers, Fitzpatrick said the breakdown between dogs and cats is roughly 60-40, which likely reflects the fact that people tend to leave cats at home more.
Stanbrook contends that the safety of the passengers should be paramount.
"And secondly there is an option that's quite reasonable - pets can travel quite safely and comfortably in the cargo holds of planes," he said.
The editorial noted that service animals, for instance those assisting blind passengers, are infrequently present on planes and are not an issue.
MedAire, an Arizona-based company that responds to airline health emergencies around the globe, said it had 22 cases involving animals in 2008 and 2009.
Sixteen were in-flight issues relating to passengers or crew with allergies to cats or dogs, and six were queries from gate agents with concerns prior to departure, said spokeswoman Jill Drake.
Airlines have medications and emergency kit supplies such as EpiPens, Albuterol, Benadryl and oxygen to help relieve the medical concern, she said.
MedAire receives about 17,000 calls a year from more than 80 airlines.