Pet-owners fly high, allergic folks wheeze Get your dander up: All the major airlines now permit pets in passenger cabins, to the dismay of those who are allergic to animals.

February 04, 1996|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Every airline has a chance to make enemies when it decides who and what it will allow in its passenger cabins. The airline can annoy animal lovers by banning pets, or it can annoy allergy-sufferers by permitting pets. And as many allergy-sufferers can attest, the largest airlines have quietly and unanimously come down on the side of the beasts.

The last major carrier to be won over was Delta, which called off its passenger-cabin pet ban about a year ago because, a spokesman said, "Our customers wanted us to do it."

The beasts do have power in their numbers. According to the Washington-based Pet Food Institute, there are 64 million pet cats and 53 million pet dogs in the United States, and many pet owners not only choose to travel with their animals, but bring them into airline passenger cabins, where they sit panting, mewing, barking or sleeping in their required under-seat "kennel" carriers.

With advance notice and an extra $50 per flight, all the major carriers allow a limited number of pets in passenger cabins on flights within the continental U.S.

Depending on the plane's size, most airlines allow two to six pets per flight: dogs and cats, if they're at least 8 weeks old, and birds. American allows up to two pets in first class and five in coach aboard its largest jets. United allows a maximum of five passenger-area pets on its wide-body jets: One in first class, one in business class and three in coach. Delta now allows one in first class, one in business and two in coach.

The problem, of course, is the allergens these pets carry. For some travelers, allergic reaction can be a serious health risk, even "a matter of life and death," in the words of Laraine Mestman of Beverly Hills, Calif.

Ms. Mestman's husband, Michael Elias, and one of their sons are highly allergic to cats. Recently, they boarded a Delta Flight from New York to Los Angeles and were alarmed to see a fellow passenger board with a cat in a carrier. (Her husband is so seriously allergic to cats that he carries an emergency treatment kit.) When the family objected, Ms. Mestman recalled, Delta personnel moved her family's seat assignments away from the animals. But because the allergic travelers and the cat were still in the same area, her husband and son nevertheless suffered allergic reactions.

"We have heard this complaint many times," says Dawn Marvin, communications director at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "It's a serious problem for people with airborne allergies."

Authorities give varying figures on the prevalence of allergies to animals. But Dr. Robert Eitches, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine who specializes in allergy and immunology, estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans are allergic to cats or dogs. He also estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans are so severely allergic to cats that they cannot comfortably visit cat-occupied households.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology notes that cat allergies are roughly twice as common as dog allergies, and generally stronger. Cat allergens remain airborne far longer than pollen does, adhere to virtually all surfaces and can remain in the environment for six months after a cat is gone.

Dr. Eitches suggests that those who are severely allergic travel with a surgical mask and urges airlines to limit traveling pets to the back rows or a designated side of the plane.

Airline officials discount the threat posed by pets to travelers with allergies. United officials estimate that they've received no more than half a dozen allergy-related complaints in the last five years.

"There are a far greater number of complaints about crying babies than about pets," says United spokesman Richard Martin.

Delta spokesman Clay McConnell notes that in airline cabins, "the air circulates from the top down" and then is processed through a "hospital-quality" filtration system. While unaware of Ms. Mestman's specific complaint, Mr. McConnell says that, generally, "It seems to me that unless you're sitting right next to a pet, the air circulating should not affect one's allergies."

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