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Should Flyers Have to Accommodate Nut Allergies?

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Welcome to Fly&Dine Tuesday, a monthly column that explores the intersection of food and travel with the help of TPG Contributor (and expert food writer) Jason Kessler of Fly&Dine, the best online source for dining while you fly.

For decades, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches filled the lunch boxes and bags of American children — but now, thanks to nut allergies, they’re seen as edible weapons and banned from school cafeterias all over the United States.

That’s because food allergies are serious business. While the body’s response to some other types of allergies (like hay fever) can be mild, food allergies — peanut and tree nut allergies, specifically — are among the leading causes of allergy-related deaths in the United States. Just a tiny bit of contact with nuts (or even nut particles) can cause someone to have a life-threatening allergic reaction. So what happens when someone with a severe nut allergy decides to fly in an enclosed metal tube across the entire country? I found out firsthand when I flew from Los Angeles (LAX) to Boston (BOS) a few weeks ago.

The detailed card I was handed by the unfortunate nut-allergy sufferer.

“Are you going to Boston?” Pause. “Are you going to Boston?” Pause. I looked up from my phone to see a woman walking around the gate area at LAX, asking everyone in the vicinity where they were headed.

If you said yes, she gave you something that looked like a business card. Fearing some sort of Herbalife pitch, I was ready to politely reject the card until I saw its contents (see above). It started with “Hello! I am very allergic to nuts, including…” and then went on to list all the nuts she was allergic to and a request that everyone on the flight abstain from eating nuts of any sort, lest we have to make an emergency landing in Omaha for some urgent medical attention.

Normally, I’d have no problem accommodating this request — I’d just refrain from buying an on-board snack pack with nuts in it. On this day, though, I had packed a lunch for the flight and my spring rolls came with a little cup of peanut sauce.

Some things are better with peanut sauce — except flights, for some people. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Some things are better with peanut sauce — except flights, for some people. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Nuts are a pretty common airplane snack. They’re easy to carry and great for a protein boost. I was certain I wasn’t the only one who had a nut or nut-like product in my carry-on. When I went over to let the woman know I had some peanut sauce with me, she explained how dire the situation could get: “That’s like anthrax to me,” she said. “I can’t force you not to eat it, but if you do, we’ll probably have to make an emergency landing somewhere.”

Wow. While I experience some mild allergy symptoms in the springtime, I’ve never had to worry about anything life-threatening like a severe nut allergy. Heck, I’ve known about allergies my whole life but I didn’t even really understand what food allergies were. So I did some research.

According to the CDC:

A food allergy occurs when the body has a specific and reproducible immune response to certain foods. The body’s immune response can be severe and life threatening, such as anaphylaxis. Although the immune system normally protects people from germs, in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

Eight foods or food groups account for 90% of serious allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts.

I also learned that children are more susceptible to allergies because their immune systems aren’t as strong as adults, but 9 million American adults (that’s 4% of all adults!) have food allergies. Aside from shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common allergies in adults.

It didn’t take long for me to understand why someone would need to pass out warning cards to every single person on the flight. The problem, though, is that it’s hard for an entire plane full of people to accommodate one person’s health issue. For instance, the woman sitting next to me in the terminal said that she was a diabetic and brought nuts along to maintain her blood sugar level on the plane. Questions started popping into my head: Does a nut allergy trump diabetes? Can one person’s health issues dictate what more than a hundred people can eat? Can someone with an allergy so severe safely fly in a commercial aircraft?

Photo via Flickr/Some rights reserved by Dan4th
Photo courtesy of  Dan4th /Flickr.

Airlines do their best to accommodate the special needs of their passengers, but that task is incredibly difficult when you’re shuttling millions of people from city to city. Katie Devine, a frequent flyer with a nut allergy, says that flight attendants are as much of a problem as other passengers. “On the airlines I typically fly (United and Star Alliance partners),” she says, “I have never experienced a flight attendant knowing what the ingredients were in any particular meal on domestic flights. This happened again on a flight on Monday with United’s new dinner menu for EWR-LAX and I was left with the option of taking a chance or not eating.”

Delta and Southwest have actually taken the lead on this issue. While they can’t outright ban peanuts on their flights, they do make special accommodations if passengers alert them in advance of their allergy. On Delta, that means nut-free snacks will be served instead of peanuts and the allergic passenger will be allowed on-board early to clean the area around their seat. On Southwest, only pretzels will served in the cabin (the peanuts will stay on the ground). In both cases, the cabin crew will usually make an announcement about the allergy to request that people refrain from consuming the offending substance.

JetBlue also has a very sensitive policy toward nut allergies:

Upon request, an Inflight crewmember will create a buffer zone one row in front and one row behind the allergic person. The Inflight crewmember will ask customers seated in the buffer zone to refrain from consuming any nut containing products they have brought onboard and will not serve any nut containing products to these rows.

JetBlue will offer a full refund to customers for whom these conditions make it impossible to travel.

Photo via Flickr/Some rights reserved by aoife mac
Photo courtesy of aoife mac / Flickr.

I’m compassionate toward people with major health issues, but my major concern is that there’s no way this allergic woman could reasonably expect every passenger to comply or even be aware of her request to avoid nuts completely. In fact, the woman sitting in the aisle seat of my row actually took out a bag of nuts and started eating them mid-flight; either she didn’t get the card, or she didn’t care. Though I didn’t say anything, I was nervous until we landed. It was like seeing a character with a gun at the beginning of a movie — you know it’s going to go off at some point!

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. In the end, I threw my peanut sauce away, and ultimately, we got to Boston just fine — even with my seatmate’s unabashed walnut eating.

To what extent do you think passengers should be expected to accommodate allergies, and what would you have done in Jason’s situation?

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