From the Peanut Gallery: Should Food Allergies Determine What is Served Aboard Airplanes?

Photograph ©istockphoto.com by Karen Sarraga.

FlyerTalk members tend to go nuts when it comes to food allergies of passengers determining what food is served aboard aircraft — and the debate rages on.

Some airlines decline to serve certain food products aboard the aircraft during a flight when they know that one of the passengers has a severe allergy — such as in this recent case where products containing peanuts were not served on a particular flight, or this recent case where alcoholic beverages were not served during a particular flight.

Those people who are unfortunate enough to have severe allergies apparently suffer from adverse reactions. According to staff from the Mayo Clinic, nasal congestion and skin flushing are amongst the most common symptoms associated with an intolerance for alcohol caused by ingredients such as preservatives, chemicals, histamine or grains…

…but that addresses consumption. In a cursory search for cases pertaining to intolerance to alcohol, I found information on dimethylformamide — which can be used as a solvent and certainly not meant to be ingested — and something known as Asian Flush syndrome, which is caused by the consumption of alcoholic beverages and apparently not by inhalation; nor is it considered fatal in and of itself.

Based on this information, I see no reason for alcoholic beverages to not be served aboard an aircraft during a flight — but because I never partake in consuming alcoholic beverages, I will be the first to admit that I am no expert on this subject. If you are a doctor or a medical professional, I invite you to please enlighten me and readers of The Gate by posting a comment below with information as to when alcoholic beverages should not be serve aboard an aircraft.

Peanut allergies are another matter, however. According to the Mayo Clinic, an allergic reaction may occur if you inhale dust or aerosols containing peanuts, such as that of peanut flour. Symptoms of the allergic reaction may include discomfort, such as swelling of the skin, runny nose, itching, shortness of breath or a tightening of the throat — or anaphylaxis could be a symptom which can cause a reaction that can threaten your life if your allergy to peanuts is severe enough.

Here is an incident from 2008 as recalled by FlyerTalk member B747-437B regarding a child four years of age who suffered a severe reaction as the result of a nut allergy after eating a chicken meal with cashew nuts while aboard the aircraft during a flight. The actions of his mother were considered by the captain and a doctor who tended to the child to be potentially life-threatening, as she refused to accept any treatment for her son, whose medication was inaccessible in their checked baggage. Did the flight crew act appropriately? Was the mother of the child justified in refusing treatment for her son?

So — do flight attendants take a chance on serving peanuts in close quarters which contains a person who could potentially suffer a fatal reaction from inhaling the dust emanating from an opened bag of peanuts simply because another passenger wants to eat them as a snack while in flight?

You might argue that there are many people with allergic reactions to certain foods. Should those foods not be served as well? If you support not serving peanuts aboard aircraft, you could counter that being allergic to peanuts is the most common cause of medical emergencies which required treatment with an epinephrine — or adrenaline — injector and a trip to an emergency room in a hospital.

I do not believe that food should not be served simply because it can cause an allergy if consumed. It is the responsibility of the person with the allergy to ensure that whatever food is ingested will not cause an allergic reaction — that is, if the person has experienced an allergic reaction to that particular food in the past. Foods known to cause an allergic reaction should simply be avoided by the sufferer.

Then again, if you suffer from nut allergies — peanuts are part of the legume family and are not classified as nuts — how do you know whether or not a particular food contains nuts or was packaged in a factory on the same equipment on which nuts are processed unless it states so on the label of the package containing the food? What about dairy items such as milk? Wheat items? Shellfish?

It may even be argued that if the food allergy or intolerance at best causes discomfort or a minor reaction as the result of an accidental interaction, that is not grounds for refusing to serve it to other passengers on a flight.

Severe reactions to peanut allergies can be fatal, and I do not blame flight attendants for not wanting to take a chance at serving peanuts aboard a flight if there is a chance of the potential death of at least one passenger known to suffer from severe reactions to peanuts as a result.

In response to a proposed rule to ban peanuts being served aboard flights, the United States Department of Transportation reportedly acknowledged in 2010 that the ban would be a violation of a 2000 appropriations act and therefore could not move forward on a proposal that might have created new protections for airline passengers who suffer from peanut allergies.

To complicate this issue even more: even though flight attendants may refuse to serve peanuts aboard an airplane, they supposedly cannot legally prevent someone from carrying on board the aircraft their own bag of peanuts and consuming them at their leisure — although they can strongly recommend against it or attempt to order passengers not to do so due to the potential danger, as evidenced by this incident in 2006. Unlike the use of electronic devices, there is no time during the entire flight when a passenger is restricted from snacking on peanuts or other types of foods — whether the aircraft is above or below 10,000 feet, parked at the gate, taking off, landing, or taxiing on the runway.

The days where cigarette smoking was permitted aboard aircraft during flights seems like eons ago. Thankfully, I started flying as a passenger when those days were waning — but I still experienced the misfortune of being seated in the row right in front of the smoking section. Yeah, sure — like I would not be affected by the second-hand smoke and breath it in just because I was seated in the last row of the non-smoking section. I should have just pretended I was choking — well, I really did not have to pretend — and alert the nearest stewardess that I was allergic to tobacco smoke…

…but is this a valid analogy? I know a number of FlyerTalk members who still smoke tobacco products. The first thing they do after debarking from the airplane is run to the nearest area where smoking is permitted and light up that heavenly (?) breath of that lung-killing tobacco goodness. Should there be an isolated area of the airport where peanuts are permitted to be consumed so as not to aggravate those who suffer from severe peanut allergies? After all, no one died immediately after inhaling the smoke exhaled from a passerby puffing on what some people dub a “cancer stick” — at least, not to my knowledge anyway.

In other words: should peanuts suffer the same fate as cigarettes by being banned aboard flights?

Another way to resolve this issue is to simply not allow a passenger with a peanut allergy to board the aircraft, as supposedly happened to a resident of Nova Scotia when he was denied a seat on the airplane of a flight operated by Air Canada back in 2011. He was on his way to Fiji. Unlike the Department of Transportation in the United States, the Canadian Transportation Agency reportedly ruled in 2010 that passengers who have nut allergies should be considered disabled and accommodated accordingly by the airline — and Air Canada was ordered to come up with an appropriate section of seats where passengers with nut allergies would be seated contingent upon the passenger with the severe allergy to contact the airline a minimum of 48 hours ahead of time to ensure that a peanut-free zone will be established by the airline. If the passenger has a severe allergy but did not bother to notify Air Canada at least 48 hours before the flight, then Air Canada can apparently refuse to allow that person to board the aircraft.

Should the policy of either denying passengers with food allergies from boarding the aircraft or excluding them from the cabin be adopted by the transportation departments of other countries — or is this policy unjust and going too far overboard? Do you agree with the idea of establishing “nut-free zones” aboard airplanes? Should passengers with peanut allergies be allowed to pre-board on an airplane with their travel companions? Is the refusal to serve peanuts to passengers on an airplane simply because one passenger has a peanut allergy unjust and going too far overboard? What about dogs who are allergic to nuts?

American Airlines reportedly created a policy to become a peanut-free airline back in 2002 — but this policy is apparently no longer in force. Should other airlines follow this policy to reduce the risk of exposing passengers allergic to peanuts and thereby preventing a potentially dangerous situation?

What did airlines do years ago when the only snack served on flights was peanuts? How many deaths or serious injuries officially occurred because peanuts — or other food and beverage products which can potentially cause severe allergic reactions — were served during flights?

Would you refrain from consuming peanuts while seated aboard the aircraft if you were asked to do so?

I do not drink alcoholic beverages or consume peanuts and nuts anyway — nor have I ever had any allergies — so I would prefer for you to please opine…

Comments (Showing 6 of 6)

  • JohnnyGlobal at 12:00pm March 15, 2013

    It is ludicrous to believe that a specific flight can be mandated as ‘peanut free’ AND for the risk to the allergy-suffered to be sufficiently removed. Airplanes are filthy places, and hundreds or thousands of flights without real deep cleaning means that if you step foot on an aircraft, you have to presume that you are being exposed to a little (or a lot) of everything. I think it’s entirely appropriate for someone to ask their immediate neighbor(s) not to engage in a behavior that could result in a severe reaction…but ultimately, it is the allergy sufferer’s onus to put themselves in a position to not be affected–and not everyone else around them.

  • Kate_Canuck at 1:39pm March 15, 2013

    There is no bright line, universal answer.

    1) First, we can try to distinguish between allergies where the risk arises only from ingesting or touching the allergen, and those where people risk death if they inhale something from a distance. There are many allergens that clearly fall into the first category and some that clearly fall into the second. Some might be in a grey area (for example, I think pet dander can present a risk to a person who is some distance from the animal but I don’t know if the reaction presents a high fatality risk if not treated).

    2) Second, we can talk about what different participants in the flight experience can (and should) do. What I would expect of an allergy sufferer (or the parent of one) is different from what I’d expect of an airline, the TSA and passengers. I believe that airlines, the TSA etc should take reasonable steps accommodate allergy sufferers. What’s reasonable depends in part on the risks the sufferer faces. I think an airline should do more to accommodate people who risk death or severe illness from exposure to an allergen than those who, for example, suffer itchy eyes (not that the latter don’t deserve sympathy and some accommodation). So, for example, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for airlines to stop serving nuts (and to take appropriate steps to label products that might have been produced in proximity to nuts). I like nuts, but no human needs them.

    I wouldn’t expect the airline to ban passengers from bringing them on-board in all circumstances and I wouldn’t expect passengers to voluntarily adopt a nut ban. However, I would expect the allergy sufferer to let people in proximity know about the allergy and I would also expect him or her to be properly equipped with an Epi-Pen etc. It would be interesting to see if a protocol could be developed so that an allergy sufferer could notify the airline in advance, and the airline could notify passengers in proximity in advance for the purpose of asking (but demanding) that they refrain from bringing the allergen on board. (But given the weaknesses of existing technology for flight bookings and notifications, I’m not hopeful that such a system would work. But in theory it’s possible.)

    Pets are an interesting example. I don’t know if someone with an allergy to pet dander risks a fatal reaction (although I believe they can have a fairly severe reaction). One difference between peanuts and pets, though, is sometimes, pets have to travel. I don’t drag my cat around the country with me (not fun for me or her) but when we moved to France, we didn’t have any choice but to transport her. She probably would have survived the trip in cargo, but we flew her in the cabin. Some pets probably are at greater risk of harm of travelling cargo than others (e.g., maybe pugs?). So now we have a situation where we’re balancing the needs of one person (and a pug) against another person. Again, in theory, an airline could prohibit pets in cabins except in certain circumstances and the airline could request notification from passengers with pet allergies so that they could be accommodated on different flights.

    Nothing eliminates the risks altogether, but airlines, allergy sufferers and other passengers can take steps to reduce risks, and the efforts expected of them can be calibrated based on their roles.

  • 777 global mile hound at 5:28pm March 15, 2013

    With all due respect
    Its stupidity with all due respect to please every allergy suffer alive onboard
    We would have to remove all food and beverage off planes
    I know folks that are allergic to nuts and some seafood
    and have violent reactions others to fruit others to just peanuts.
    Others who get violently ill from dairy products.

    It’s up to anyone with these problems to be extremely careful ask questions and when in question carry medication,have doctor/hospital contacts where they travel or bring their own food just as I do with no allergies because the food is simply inedible and sometime potentially unsafe on most aircraft.
    There is no way guarantee safety anywhere at any time. For those at extreme risk use extreme caution!

    Just this past week a wonderful young man in his 20s passed away as his best friend gave him half of his cookie innocently as reported by national news.
    Airlines cannot be trusted to serve non allergy sufferers clean decent mold and bacteria free food in a reasonable manner. Let the diner beware everywhere
    Just look at reports on onboard water tanks and see if you want to drink the aircraft water
    Disgusting!

  • craezie at 6:55pm March 16, 2013

    I think that every time we choose to take a form of public transportation (or engage in any public activity that involves a lot of people in close proximity) there should be a general principle that we will have to sacrifice some things that we might choose to do in private for the good of the general public. This may include anything from being tolerant towards the family of a screaming child or not bringing our bags of peanuts for consumption. I think the burden should be on what is life-threatening. There are only a few allergens which cause severe reaction or death on contact in many people — peanuts and shellfish being among those. It is entirely reasonable for airlines to ban those ingredients from their snacks and request that they not be consumed on flights with an allergic person. For all other allergies, such as wheat, tree nuts, and milk, it is the burden of the allergy sufferer to bring their own food or read the labels carefully. Personally if I or one of my children were one of those, I would always make sure to have my own food on every flight.

  • CJKatl at 9:30am March 18, 2013

    Let me get this straight….somone who may die from a reaction to peanuts in the air is on a flight, and someone else honestly thinks they cannot live without peanuts for a few hours, so peanuts should be on the flight? How amazingly selfish and callous. Seriously, how do these people who obviously need peanuts every couple of hours survive a night’s sleep? Do they awake every two hours to pop some Mr. Salty in their mouths? Any human not willing to make such a minor adjustment when it threatens the life of another is beyond pale. How have people become so selfish and unreasonable?

    This: http://www.wcvb.com/news/local/boston-south/Teen-19-dies-from-cookie-with-peanut-oil/-/9848842/19286044/-/nmer4kz/-/index.html

    Anyone who is selfish enough to want peanuts on a flight when the presence can cause someone’s death, why not explain that to the parents of this nineteen year old college student who died last week from his reaction to accidentally eating something containing peanuts?

  • ech at 7:14am July 23, 2013

    I am an adult with life-threatening allergies to both peanuts and tree nuts.

    I have been treated with hostility. I have been told I am overreacting, that its just anxiety. I have had people try to “test” me by intentionally exposing me to allergens, sending me into anaphylaxis. And I have been told that I just should not be allowed to use public transportation.

    I have never found a completely safe flight, but sometimes I need to fly. I don’t qualify for disability. I can’t just live in a bubble as people suggest.

    I really wish that everyone could just refrain from eating nuts for a few hours. I don’t understand why its that hard.

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