TORONTO – A popular airline says it has stopped offering meal accommodations for the majority of travellers who require special diets for health or religious reasons.
Air Transat says passengers flying economy class on transatlantic flights are required to choose from a selection of hot sandwiches which cannot be adapted to address allergies or other restrictions.
The airline says its EuroBistro menu includes an option for vegetarians and says it can accommodate requests for kosher meals, but says it cannot provide choices suitable for conditions such as gluten-intolerance or meals that conform with other religious traditions.
Air Transat says those wishing to request a special meal may either upgrade to club class or bring their own food on board the flight.
The situation is similar for passengers on U.S. or Caribbean flights, who can purchase meals from the company’s menu but are also unable to request most special meal accommodations.
The new policy does not fly with passengers with dietary needs, who say they’re inclined to take their business elsewhere despite Air Transat’s competitive rates.
Maxime Pelletier, 27, ran afoul of the new policy on a recent round trip from Montreal to Paris.
The PhD student, who has celiac disease and suffers acute gastric discomfort if he consumes gluten, booked with Air Transat in part because they had previously accommodated his special diet without difficulty.
This time, however, his request for a gluten-free meal was declined.
Pelletier was forced to pack his own meal, steering clear of produce and other foods that may lead to hassles with airport security.
He called Air Transat’s policy shift, which went into effect this past April, a “disappointing” development that creates additional headaches in a process already rife with inconvenience.
“When you have a special diet need, travelling can be very difficult,” Pelletier said. “I cannot eat in restaurants most of the time. I need to book hotels and stay where I have access to a kitchen so I can cook my own meals. So having this meal provided to me in airplanes where I know it’s safe really makes travelling a lot easier.”
Pelletier said he was compensated for his trouble with an additional glass of wine, a move he found enjoyable but not necessarily wise under the circumstances.
According to Air Transat, the menu changes came in response to customer satisfaction surveys that found passengers were seeking more variety in the company’s meal offerings.
Spokeswoman Debbie Cabana said customers now have a selection of six hot sandwiches to choose from rather than deciding between two hot casseroles, adding vegetarians have a sushi option available to them.
A gluten-free “product” is kept on board in limited supply, but Cabana said it cannot be pre-ordered.
The new menu offers other benefits besides selection, she said.
“These sandwiches are now more fresh and healthy, and the portion is more generous,” Cabana said, adding the meals are also easier to serve on the plane. “For us, it’s a good change for the passengers.”
Some of them beg to differ. One disgruntled traveller posted a message to her Facebook page warning those with dietary sensitivities about the new policy, prompting some creative discussion on how passengers could voice their discontent.
“I feel like I should bring a really extravagant gourmet meal and make a big production out of serving it,” the poster said in response to Air Transat’s suggestion that she pack her own food.
“I have a candelabra you can borrow,” offered one reader. “White gloves?”
Cabana said the menu format Air Transat chose cannot be adapted to the array of food restrictions among their passengers.
“We did not have the possibility to offer all of the special meals that could be ordered for all our flights,” she said. “There are so many possibilities and there could be so many restrictions that it was not possible for us to respond to all these kinds of allergies or specific needs for food.”
Special requests, however, are still welcome on some competing flights. Air Canada’s list of alternative meal types features 17 entries including meals classified as suitable for travellers who are diabetic, gluten-intolerant, Hindu, Muslim, low-calorie and vegetarian.
WestJet said it doesn’t offer gluten-free meals on its flights to London, U.K., but that will soon change.
“We understand that many of our guests are looking for this type of option and we are in the process of developing a gluten-free meal for our (London) service which we hope to roll out with our winter schedule starting in October,” the airline said in an email to The Canadian Press.
Pelletier said his next trip will likely be taken on board one of Air Transat’s rivals, since the airline has lost his business.
“Next time that I will look to buy a ticket, I will definitely try and go for a company that will provide me with a meal on board so I can eat.”