By Henry Ehrlich
In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.—(The character Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in The Third Man)
The headline was encouraging: “Swiss to become ‘allergy-friendly’ airline.”
The Swiss carrier is to be certified by the European Center for Allergy Research Foundation (ECARF) for its far-reaching allergy policies. The details of this new policy are good as far as they go: lactose- and gluten-free drinks and snacks; special meals; pillows stuffed with synthetic materials instead of down; no decorative flowers or air fresheners; and gentle soaps in the toilets (although lactose has nothing to do with allergies). “We have seen a steady increase over the past few years in our customers’ need for an air travel environment that pays due regard to any allergic conditions,” says Frank Maier, Swiss’ head of product and services. “So we’ve been working with ECARF to provide a concrete response to these demands and make everyone’s air travel experience as pleasant and problem-free as possible.”
Call me provincial, but these are not the things I hear about when North Americans talk about allergies and air travel. With us, it’s mostly the ubiquity of peanuts as an in-flight snack, the variability of airlines’ policies for serving them, and the caprices of individual crews in enforcing the policies even when promises have been made when seats were booked. Parents worry that wide consumption of peanuts in a confined space in air that is constantly being re-circulated over hours will trigger serious reactions, or residue accumulation on surfaces around their children will provoke contact reactions. Snack suppliers counter that airborne allergic reactions are a myth.
Look, I have good friends who live in Heidi-like splendor outside of Geneva. I have visited them on business and for pleasure. The city itself is jewel-like, kempt, and dull, with a sailboat-dotted lake right in the middle and the Alps in the distance. There’s a reason that aggressive nations have chosen this setting to negotiate rules of war. Nothing like an air of civilized conduct sustained by good food and wine in gorgeous surroundings to help you put torture in perspective. For that matter, Geneva is the headquarters of the World Health Organization [WHO].
Switzerland regulates all kinds of personal behavior. If you live in an apartment building, you can’t do your laundry at night, thus sparing your neighbors any noise. The country has a long tradition of personal firearm possession, although that was built on the concept of what you might call a “well-regulated militia.” The Swiss require the purchase of health insurance, which is offered through private companies. Their health care is only rated 20th best in the world compared to 37 for the US by a complicated WHO formula, but it while it is the second most costly among developed nations to ours as a percentage of GDP, it only takes two-thirds as much of it as ours.
So with all this as backdrop, it doesn’t surprise me that Swissair’s allergy policy should be a bit of a cuckoo clock. Lots of Swiss children do have food allergies, but maybe they don’t fly as much as Americans do. I would guess that with the country’s population just 8 million people, Swissair traffic is dominated by business travel. Their route map shows flights to Miami, but not to Disneyworld. Gluten and obnoxious perfumes may indeed be the allergy issues of the day for the jet-setters who buy all those astonishingly expensive wrist watches that are on sale everywhere. Who knows? If peanuts were as important to the country’s economy as, say, flight capital, or Big Pharma, the situation might be very different.
US airlines are surely a big market for Big Peanut, as are major league ballparks. As someone who is not allergic to them, I know I prefer them to those shiny little packages of empty calories like pretzels. But I also feel that as a passenger I can get by without them for a few hours so that families with serious allergies can ride without worrying about a medical emergency.
I give credit to Swissair. Given their clientele, they have done their best to ensure a comfortable trip for everyone. Even the non-allergic benefit when sneezing and coughing and itching are kept to a minimum. The Swiss have been doing that kind of consensus governance for 800 years. I wish American Airlines and other US carriers would learn from them. There are worse things to invent than the cuckoo clock.
*Special thanks to my man in Geneva, Matthew Stevenson