Airline travel for passengers with allergies

Airline travel can be an exciting and convenient way to see the world.  However, for passengers with peanuts and tree nuts, airline travel can present serious hazards and concerns.

This past May, a federal court in California considered a case involving a woman who suffered a peanut allergy attack while she was on an airplane.  The passenger in that case reportedly notified the airline about her allergy and was told that the flights attendants would make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from consuming peanuts and peanut-related products during the flight, but when she boarded the airplane, the crew members refused to make the announcement.  An hour into the flight, she had a severe allergic reaction to peanut dust that was released into the air by an individual who was eating peanuts four rows behind her.  The passenger consumed Benadryl and used her inhaler, but her condition worsened.  The airplane made an unscheduled emergency landing after flight attendants and medical personnel advised the pilot that the passenger would not survive without prompt medical attention.  The passenger was transported by ambulance to the hospital, and remained in an intensive care unit for two days.[1]

Fortunately, the passenger survived.  Unfortunately, this incident is not the only time that a commercial airline pilot has been forced to make an emergency landing because a passenger went into anaphylactic shock after being exposed to peanuts or tree nuts while they were in mid-flight.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) estimates that approximately 6 million children have food allergies in the United States.[2]  No one knows exactly how many people suffer from food allergies, but it is estimated that peanut allergies affect approximately 2% of the population, and that peanut allergies are one of the most common causes of food-allergy related deaths.[3]

Food allergies are on the rise.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of reported food allergies increased 18% among children under age 18 years from 1997 to 2007.[4]  Despite this fact, there are currently no federal guidelines or procedures for airlines to follow concerning food allergies.[5]

Safety Tips for Airline Passengers with Nut Allergies

The No Nut Traveler website has published a checklist of helpful tips for passengers with food allergies, in an effort to reduce the risks of airline travel.[6]  Before booking a flight, No Nut Traveler advises passengers with food allergies to:

  • Talk to their physician about any travel concerns and request a letter that confirms their food allergy diagnoses and specifically states the need to carry medications and/or food onto the flight.
  • Read airline allergy policies before choosing a flight, make a copy of it, and bring the copy to the airport.
  • Call the airline to review the policy and ask any questions, and take notes.  Some airlines, such as JetBlue, make announcements and create buffer zones.  Some may comply with requests to suspend serving nuts during the flight.
  • Select an early flight. According to No Nut Traveler, airplanes are usually cleaned at the end of the day, so airplanes might be cleaner first thing in the morning.
  • Select a direct flight, so that the passenger is not exposed to multiple planes and crews.
  • Inform the reservation agent about the allergy, and ask that it be documented and forwarded to the flight crew and gate agent.
  • Renew medications and keep them in the original packaging, labeled with the passenger’s name by the pharmacy, in case they need to be used in the event of an emergency.  Also, because one auto injector might not be enough to counter the allergic reaction, passengers should bring at least two auto injectors onto the flight.

Safety Tips for Airline Passengers with Food Allergies

On the day of travel, No Nut Traveler advises passengers with food allergies to:

  • Remember to bring their medications (epinephrine/antihistamines), a copy of the airline policy, a letter from their physician and a signed emergency action plan.  These items should be accessible, and should not be placed into packed luggage or overhead bins.
  • Remind the gate agent of the severity of the passenger’s allergy, and if possible, pre-board to clean the area.
  • On board the airplane, tell the flight attendants about the allergy.
  • Clean the seat and surrounding area including the tray table, light switches, arm rests, window shade and call buttons using Clorox-type wipes (not hand sanitizer).
  • Consider using a seat cover or blanket from home to cover the seat.
  • Inform surrounding passengers about the allergy, and/or wear a t-shirt or bracelet alerting others to the allergy.
  • Ask the flight attendants to make an announcement requesting passengers to refrain from eating peanuts and tree nuts on the airplane, and to create a buffer zone.
  • Pack safe food and bring paper plates or napkins to cover the tray table.  No Nut Traveler advises packing extra food, to allow for delays.
  • Avoid pillows and blankets provided by the airlines, because they are often not cleaned between flights.
  • Treat the flight crew with respect, because they are there to help.

It might not be possible for passengers with food allergies to avoid any possibility of having an allergic reaction in mid-flight.  However, being aware of the hazards, and taking the precautions described above, can help to reduce the anxiety and hazards associated with airline travel.

About The Author: Ashley Davis is an attorney at Allen & Allen. Her role enables her to serve as a valuable resource to a team of 30 trial attorneys. She has more than ten years of legal experience and currently serves as the Blog Editor for the firm.

[1] Gleason v. United Airlines, Inc., 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66161, *1-2 (E.D. Cal. May 19, 2015).