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updated: 4/28/2014 5:30 AM

Allergies and airlines: Not a good mix for some travelers

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  • Laura Pontarelli, here with husband John and daughter Julia at their home in Elk Grove Village, has severe allergies and had to forgo a flight minutes before takeoff when she saw a service dog would also be on board.

    Laura Pontarelli, here with husband John and daughter Julia at their home in Elk Grove Village, has severe allergies and had to forgo a flight minutes before takeoff when she saw a service dog would also be on board.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer


Sitting in the American Airlines lounge, Laura Pontarelli's excitement over a trip that could determine her daughter's future disintegrated into fear.

"Oh no," John Pontarelli recalled his wife saying. The source of the Elk Grove Village resident's panic? The appearance of a service dog accompanying a visually impaired passenger on the Pontarellis' flight to Tucson, Ariz., in January.

Laura Pontarelli suffers from severe asthma and allergies. Getting stuck in an airplane for several hours with a large, long-haired dog was a non-starter.

After a fruitless discussion with ticket agents, Pontarelli had to choose between watching daughter Julia's college dance audition and an allergy/asthma attack at 30,000 feet. She stayed at home.

Conflicts between travelers with allergies or asthma and animals on planes are common, said Mike Tringale, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America senior vice president for external affairs.

"The struggle of asthma and allergy patients to be properly accommodated in air travel is a constant problem. Disability bumps up against disability and rights bump up against rights," Tringale said.

Pontarelli was diagnosed with asthma when she was 4. It was so severe, her family gave away their three cats. Despite hopes she'd outgrow it, her condition has persisted.

"It's part of my life," she said. "I'm used to it. People say, 'Oh, you don't like dogs.' I love dogs. They just make me so sick."

A typical asthma attack for Pontarelli starts with her chest tightening, followed by coughing, difficulty breathing, a runny nose, itchy eyes and a restricted airway. The symptoms get progressively worse.

Back at O'Hare International Airport, Pontarelli was apprehensive about sharing a flight with a service dog. "I don't think I can do this," she recalled saying.

Pontarelli ended up forfeiting her flight and missed seeing Julia perform. Her greatest frustration was the few options the airline offered.

The family contacted the Daily Herald and I checked in with American Airlines.

"We absolutely want to work with our customers but we also have to be mindful of the regulations under which we must comply," spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan said in an email.

"While there are no U.S. Department of Transportation regulations pertaining to customers with allergies traveling in an air carrier and since allergic reactions are so diverse as to include perfumes, strong odors, chemicals, fabrics, etc., we try to accommodate customers who are allergic to animals by altering their itinerary as much as possible. When making reservations, we suggest customers ask the agent if any animals are currently scheduled for travel on the flights selected."

Fagan also advised calling the reservations office 12 hours before departure to get the most up-to-date information. If necessary, passengers with health issues can be booked on animal-free flights without fees. However, the airline can't guarantee a 100 percent pet-free cabin because of last-minute seat switches from other flights.

Fagan retired this month but she said AA's customer service department would look into the issue. As a result, Laura's ticket was refunded.

That's great, John Pontarelli said, but what about prevention?

He advocates an animal/allergy alert when people are purchasing tickets.

"We just need some type of system to accommodate everybody," he said.

One more thing

That's how American handles animals and allergies. However, every airline is different, which is part of the problem, Tringale said.

For travelers with allergies, he recommends checking the airline's policies both as a corporation and at the relevant airport. Ask what options are available if there's an animal on an airplane or if there's an allergen-free flight that day.

Bring sanitary wipes, a face mask, medications and inform the flight attendants of your condition and ask what the first-aid procedures are.

As far as talking to air carriers, "it's an uphill climb," Tringale said, adding the association is still bruised after the backlash from the peanut industry when it attempted to limit peanuts on flights.

Still -- the solution could be as simple as someone with allergies getting an alert when a pet owner purchases a ticket on his or her flight.

Tringale stressed the association recognizes the lifesaving role service animals play and the rights pet lovers have to transport their dog or cat.

But with 25 million Americans suffering from asthma and 45 million with nasal allergies, "it's good for people with pets to be aware this sensitivity exists," Tringale said.

Got thoughts about pets on planes? Drop me an email on this or any other transportation issue at

Your voice

Mark Hannan of Wheaton wrote, "I hope that given all the controversy surrounding Metra, the (recent) recommendations of (a state) task force (on transit reform) are examined and accepted. Hopefully, Metra management will be placed in an entirely new and positive direction. Since former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is part of the task force it gives me great confidence in (its) credibility. Unfortunately, the report is handed back to the career politicians who thrive in the environment of patronage ... time will tell."


Learn about the I-90 and Elmhurst interchange at an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. May 1 at the Holiday Inn Elk Grove, 1000 Busse Road.

Gridlock alert

• Resurfacing has started on Algonquin Road (Route 62) at Meacham Road in Schaumburg. Expect daytime lane closures through July 31.

• Ouch. The eastbound Eisenhower Expressway lanes leading to Congress Parkway and the Loop are reduced to one through lane until late May/early June as part of the Circle Interchange project.

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