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Crewed Talk: Going Nuts over the Particular Problem of Flyers with Allergies


In December, new food labeling rules will be going into effect throughout the EU. Airlines operating routes through the area are in the process of making the required changes, which will result in a huge step up in the amount of information available to flyers about what’s in the food onboard, jumping from basically zero to a complete listing including the presence of up to 14 common allergens. It will be a definite win for food-sensitive passengers. Will this help settle a brewing conflict over keeping passengers with allergies safe, or is it just the start of what airlines should be doing?

Nut allergies represent the pinnacle of this debate, with their ubiquity and common severity. U.S. flyers with nut allergies have a choice between Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, all of which have policies of (1) making onboard announcements as to the presence of an allergic passenger and (2) allowing affected families to pre-board in order to wipe down their seating area.

Sometimes, a “nut-free buffer zone” consisting of up to three rows will also be created around passengers with allergies. Passengers seated in the buffer zone will not be served nuts and are asked to refrain from eating ones they might have brought with them. Occasionally, the flight crew will refrain from serving nut products entirely if an allergic passenger is flying with them, opting instead to board and serve alternatives. United Airlines, American Airlines (and British Airways, I notice) do none of the above, which makes allergic flyers quite angry.

From inside the industry, I understand the temptation throw up one’s hands and avoid making these sorts of accommodations altogether, for several reasons. One is the already overwhelming barrage of passengers who feel they require some sort of unique effort for something or other. Just within the allergen category, I’ve had a lady rant about having a “caffeine allergy” and demand that we not serve any hot drinks onboard, as she claimed even “the smell” would give her a reaction. I found it curious that she didn’t have a problem with us serving sodas during the flight. On another occasion, a passenger approached us about a “lethal” nut allergy, yet when we asked if he traveled with an EpiPen, he said he had no idea what that was!

I remember reading a story about one woman who did have a documented allergy concern on a flight, and my attention lingering on the “unbelievable selfishness” of a mother seated two rows behind the woman. The mother had made PB&J sandwiches for her children and was “put out to the point of tears” by the allergic passenger’s expectation that she would refrain from serving them. I wish I could go back in time ask the passenger with the allergy, “Ok, but did you offer to purchase an alternative meal for her children since their own mother’s advance planning was being negated by your own needs?”

Aside from a dreaded avalanche of special demands brought on by every problem under the heavens — or even just the 14 allergens included in the EU’s new guidelines — airlines that refuse to bend may also doubt whether the accommodations above are even effective. Fabric seats and carpeting are likely littered with nut residue from previous flights. Some passengers have allergies so severe they can’t even breathe nut particles in the air without suffering a reaction. If a vulnerable passenger comes onto an aircraft with no EpiPen and no protective mask, is it logical to expect an airline to take precautions beyond what the passenger has already done for themselves? If an airline complies with allergic passengers’ demands and someone still has a reaction, could the carrier be considered liable for having failed on some implicit promise of protection? For example, if the crew makes an allergy-related announcement to passengers, is there an onus on the crew to then enforce it? I can see why some companies feel like it’s a door they just shouldn’t open at all.

None of this is meant to downplay the very real concerns of families affected by food allergies. We’re talking about a flight coming with potentially lethal consequences here! A visit to NoNutTraveler.com is a helpful resource for understanding the intense anxiety experienced by allergy sufferers and the rules they’re pushing for.

Although I share their concern over the effectiveness of nut policies in place at JetBlue, United and Southwest, I don’t see how those particular efforts are a burden, with the possible exception of not serving nuts onboard at all. As a crew member, I have no problem making an announcement and a (requested, not enforced) row buffer. One family member (and only one) being permitted to pre-board for a wipe down also seems reasonable. Remember, though, if the airline you’re flying has no such policies in place, the crew should not be considered horrid if they don’t do as you ask; they’re just following orders from the boss.

As someone who doesn’t have loved ones that suffer from such allergies, I’m not sure how fair of a judge I am on this issue. I spent a lot of this week asking those around me what they think about allergies on aircraft, and I was surprised to learn the majority leaned toward the United and American approach. In truth, it’s just an excuse to share the most interesting reply I received:

“How much are others expected to do? What if I have a methane allergy and your onboard farts are going to kill me?”

It doesn’t begin to resolve anything, but it definitely gives you something to think about!

[Photo: iStock]

Comments are Closed.
lighthand October 20, 2014

Actually I think both parties (airlines & passenger's with allergy) should work together, and come up with a suitable compromise. 1. Notify airline that you have an allergy in advance, in particular anaphylactic type allergies. 2. Airlines notified in-time can ensure no nut product is boarded or served. 3. Onboard announcement made to inform all of this and seat number of affected passenger/s 4. Passengers who brought onboard their own nut products, can have their seats switched away from allergic passenger 5. Allergic passenger ensure they have necessary emergency medications with them at all time 6. Allergic passenger should be gracious, and thank/apologize to neighbors about the inconvenience I'm sure with a few simple steps things can go a lot smoother. I have relatives and friends with very bad nut allergy. But none have any problems with travelling, and they all agree that grace is almost always returned with grace. Now that the nicer things have been said..., here comes the nasty ones. I have met passengers who are just plain jxxxs. Those who thinks that the whole world should bend over backwards just to accommodate them. Abusing FAs, other passengers, minors and people seated 20 rows away from them... To them I say "GET A LIFE!".

DangerousDave October 20, 2014

My son has a nut allergy. We do fly. We carry the proper medication as well as an epipen and yes we have had bad reactions ON THE GROUND. As the kids get older, they can tell when something has triggered their allergy and we act quickly. It would be nice if the person next to us would perhaps not open nuts or perhaps we can switch seats. That said, come on, it's a plane. Everyone cannot expect the entire plane to accommodate them. We all do the best we can. Some are nicer then others. If it's a problem then people perhaps cannot travel by that method. A surgical mask does help a great deal. It's not that hard to travel with one. Let's be honest. Enough people are cranky on a plane, or just jerks, they are GOING to open and eat their nuts. Let's plane on that.

mtdd October 20, 2014

It's a difficult one, and I fully agree that there are many people that claim allergies that either are exaggerated or non-existent. However, airlines are in the business of serving food to their customers, just as any land-based food outlet., and therefore have to accept a certain level of responsibility. Just as the person suffering from an allergy must, in terms of preparing themselves for an unfortunate episode on board. I have a mild allergy, and it is not life-threatening: on most airlines I am able to pre-order the required menu to avoid any reaction. Only once did such a meal blatantly contain the substance I am allergic to, which you have to admit is pretty crass. I am by no means an expert on the more extreme allergies such as nuts: but an hour spent on google seems to indicate to me that an allergic reaction brought about by airborne particles is incredibly rare. So I would expect an airline or restaurant to be meticulous about its declaration of food content where nuts are concerned, but I do not believe that they can order the entire seating plan on an aircraft in such a way as to avoid airborne nut particles reaching the passenger concerned. If their worry about this is strong, then maybe they should wear a mask....

Josh Davis October 20, 2014

Although both the allergic passengers and the non-allergic passengers are looking out for their own self-interests here, there is a massive difference between "but I want to eat a bag of cashews/it is my right to eat my PB&J sandwich" and "I might die"

joecool1885 October 18, 2014

It's a tough one: I love my onboard nuts, and it's pretty much the only thing they have left to take away. Frankly, if the airlines would serve Fruit and Cheese instead, I'd be for it. But where is the line drawn: if we accommodate everyone with an allergy, would we end up with no food on planes allowed? I'm not down with that. And typically I'd be happy to refrain from eating nuts or products with nuts in them to help out a fellow passenger, but if there is no alternative, or the alternative is crap, I would be a little irked.