Airlines Sometimes Prevent Passengers with Nut Allergies from Flying
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Airlines Sometimes Prevent Passengers with Nut Allergies from Flying

Some airlines have been better than others at accommodating passengers with allergies

January 27, 2017

As the number of people with a food allergy is growing, so are tensions between them and the airlines they are trying to use to travel.

The New York Times (NYT) reports the story of Dr. Rosanne Bloom, who was removed along with her family from an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Turks and Caicos Islands on Christmas after she notified the flight crew that her teenage sons suffered from severe nut allergies.

"I said, 'We have our medicine. We brought our own food, and we're comfortable staying on the plane.' I offered to sign a waiver," said Dr. Bloom. "We were off the plane in two minutes."

According to American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller, decisions like this one are up to the pilot.

"The pilot determined it would be best for the family not to travel based on the severity of the allergy and the need to divert the airline if anyone were eating nuts," he said.

Airlines have traditionally served peanuts to their passengers, and often they do not serve anything else. This practice can be dangerous for passengers with severe allergies, who may experience a reaction if they simply touch a surface exposed to nuts.

Tensions between these passengers and airline staff members have been growing over the past several years as carriers have started enforcing tighter pre-boarding rules. In the past, parents of young children with food allergies could board early so as to wipe down seats, trays, and armrests and thereby reduce the child's exposure to allergens. Many airlines no longer allow families with children board before other passengers today.

According to lawyer Mary Vargas, families who ask for permission to pre-board, or even simply ask if nuts will be served, risk being either removed from the flight or threatened with removal.

Families with nut allergies are now challenging such policies in the legal arena. There have been two formal complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in the last month accusing American Airlines of discriminating against passengers who have allergies. The carrier's pre-boarding policy prohibiting pre-boarding specifically for people who have allergies and not for others, is cited in the complaints.

"This is about being allowed to fly like everybody else in the United States," said Ms. Vargas, who is representing the families.

Though no one tracks the occurrence of medical emergencies on airplanes, studies have shown that such in-flight emergences are relatively uncommon and only affect a fraction of the 3.6 billion people who are estimated to fly every year. The most common reasons that planes are diverted due to a medical emergency are chest pain and cardiovascular events. According to a 2013 study, allergic reactions account for less than four percent of in-flight medical emergencies.

American Airlines, which operates one of the biggest plane fleets in the world, does not serve peanuts. However, it does have a peanut policy, which states: "Requests that we not serve any particular foods, including tree nuts, on our flights cannot be granted. We are not able to provide nut 'buffer zones,' nor are we able to allow passengers to pre-board to wipe down seats and tray tables."

In explaining the limits of the precautions that the airline is able to take, Miller said: "Ultimately we cannot guarantee customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other nuts during the flight, and allowing people with nut allergies to preboard can create a false sense of security and does not eliminate risk."

People who have severe, life-threatening food allergies may experience swelling and have trouble breathing after even mild exposure. They usually carry at least one Epi-Pen, an injector containing the medication epinephrine. However, in cases of a severe reaction, a person may still urgently need to go to a medical facility.

Steps such as setting up buffer zones, in which passengers sitting nearby are requested not to eat nut products, and wiping down seats and trays have been shown to possibly reduce the risk of an in-flight allergic reaction.

One of the complaints filed against American Airlines is from Nicole Mackenzie, whose seven-year-old has life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds. The carrier did not let her pre-board her flight last fall from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte in order to clean the seat. The second complaint was filed on behalf of advocate organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), which represents people who have food allergies.

"American Airlines' action was clearly discriminatory," said Dr. James Baker Jr., FARE's chief executive officer and chief medical officer. "It has a defined policy that they put on their website, and the only people they single out from preboarding are people with food allergies."

Lianne Mandelbaum's son has allergies. She runs a website called the No Nut Traveler, tracking the experiences of travelers with allergies. According to Mandelbaum, every carrier makes its own rules but inconsistently enforces them, and the result is that travelers often do not know what to expect.

Michael Silverman is a New York City psychologist with a 13-year-old daughter has a severe allergy. He hesitates to bring up the subject when traveling, afraid that they will be kicked off their flight.

"It's like playing Russian roulette," he said.

DOT officials said that the department is investigating the complaints and that, under the Air Carrier Access Act regulating air travel, severe allergies are considered a disability if they affect a person's ability to breathe "or substantially impact another major life activity."

The nut industry has been lobbying against restricting the consumption of nuts on airplanes. Congress has prohibited the DOT from placing any such restrictions in place.

Some carriers have been more accommodating of passengers who have food allergies. Jet Blue creates a nut-free "buffer zone" around allergic passengers. Southwest avoids serving peanuts if flight attendants know there is an allergic passenger on the flight. Delta's policy is also not to serve peanuts if any passenger is allergic.

However, interviews conducted by NYT with almost 12 families and young adults suggest that there are many people who are concerned about getting kicked off a flight if they ask whether or not nuts will be served.

Hospital administrator Ana Govorko talked about a July incident in which she, her teenage daughter, and her adult son were taken off a Lufthansa flight going to Munich and Trieste, Italy from New York. She had let the gate attendant know that her daughter has severe allergies and that she was carrying medication with her. They family spend seven hours in the airport attempting to find another flight while carrier employees "were joking about her allergies," said Govorko. "They were very rude. It was shocking."

Govorko was able to board another Lufthansa flight out of Newark the next day. According to Christina Semmel, a Lufthansa spokeswoman, the family was allowed to fly after they presented a letter from the daughter's doctor, but Govorko says that she had presented the letter upon trying to board the first flight.

Laura Ilsley experienced a similar incident last April when she and her husband were flying from Turkey with their son and their four-year-old daughter, who has a severe peanut allergy.

When Ilsley notified Air France about her daughter's allergies, the carrier's agents responded that the flight crew was planning to serve peanuts and would not change their plans, and that Ilsley's family was "not welcome on board," she said. A carrier manager was eventually able to get the family on a Delta flight on which the crew made an announcement that there was a child with a severe peanut allergy on board and that pretzels and cookies would be offered instead of peanuts.

"The staff was very kind and it went off without a hitch," Ilsley said.

Air France issued a statement saying that the flight crew had "determined it was not in the best interest of the passenger to board the flight on such short notice" and that "the case was handled with concern for passenger safety as the top priority."

Sydney Silverman, daughter of Dr. Silverman, said that her experience flying with Delta from Palm Beach back to New York City over the Martin Luther King weekend was actually very good. A flight attendant saw her wiping down her seat and asked if she were allergic to peanuts. Sydney said yes, but that it was okay to serve nuts.

The attendant then "turned to the people in the row in front of me and in back of me and asked, 'is it O.K. if I don't serve you peanuts on the flight?' And they all said yes," Sydney said. "And then she went on the intercom and said they weren't going to serve peanuts because someone on the flight has an allergy, and if people brought peanuts to please not eat them.

"And it made me feel thankful," she said. "No one's ever done anything like that before."