Cats & cat allergies on a plane

Each Friday on msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin I get to answer a reader’s question. This week Christopher Ambler wanted to know not how to take a cat on a plane, but how to avoid cats on a plane.

“If I have an allergy attack, it manifests as asthma that could not only cause a trip to the hospital, at best, but also typically means I will be recovering for days after receiving treatment,” wrote Ambler.

He tries to call ahead to see if there might be cats in the cabin, but “I’m often told that I have no recourse. They have said that I should ask for a seat change, but with re-circulated air, no seat is safe. Travel insurance also doesn’t cover this, as it’s a foreseeable circumstance.”

Rebooking on another flight sometimes solves the conflict, but then he’s often hit with an airline’s change fee, Ambler said.

Ambler is not alone. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), about 10 percent of people with allergies are allergic to pets.

“It can be tough,” said Todd Rambasek, an AAAI fellow and a doctor with E.N.T. & Allergy Health Services in Cleveland, Ohio. “You can try avoidance measures and ask to be moved to another part of the plane. But even if there’s no pet in the cabin or near where you’re seated, remember that a lot of people carry pet dander on their clothes.”

Rambasek said asthma sufferers on airplanes might consider pre-medicating or wearing a face mask, such as those worn by some travelers during flu season.

Ambler has his own suggestion: During the booking process, he’d like airlines to alert a passenger if a pet is already booked on the flight. “If so, I would gladly say, ‘Hey, they booked first, I’ll take a different flight.’ But if someone with a pet allergy books first, pets should be disallowed on that flight. First to book should win,” said Ambler.

I ran that idea past a few airlines. American Airlines told me such a plan would be too complex, too time-consuming and too unreliable to administer.

“Just as with our policy for peanut allergies, we simply cannot assure customers that our aircraft are free of allergens, even if there is no pet onboard,” said American Airlines spokesperson Andrea Huguely. “We cannot guarantee our flights to be allergy-free, and customers should consult their physician as to the best way to medically deal with that issue.”  (American does not serve peanuts, but allows up to seven booked pets per flight.)

But here’s another strategy that may help. Many pet-friendly organizations list airline pet-policies on their websites. Studying those will tell you how much each airline charges for an in-cabin pet (some airline pet fares can top $100 each way) and how many pets each airline allows in the cabin. Frontier Airlines, for example, allows up to 10 pets aboard each flight.

Travelers seeking to avoid flying with other people’s pets might choose an airline that either limits the number of pets in the cabin or charges a high fee for passengers to bring their pets along.