Is the Food Allergy Policy of American Airlines Considered Discriminatory?

L ianne Mandelbaum of The No Nut Traveler had launched a petition which would require airlines to institute a “bill of rights” for all passengers who have allergies to food, as I first wrote in this article pertaining to whether food allergies should determine what is served aboard airplanes…

Is the Food Allergy Policy of American Airlines Considered Discriminatory?

…and as of earlier this week, “FARE with the assistance of lawyer Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) over American Airlines’ policy not to allow pre-boarding in order to wipe down the seating area”, according to this article written by Lianne Mandelbaum for The Huffington Post. “Attorney Mary Vargas told me that ‘Today FARE drew a line in the sand and asked DOT to enforce its own regulations to protect those with food allergies in air travel. American Airlines cannot be allowed to deny federally protected rights.’”

FARE — which stands for Food Allergy Research & Education — is an advocacy organization which works on behalf of the 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies. Included amongst those 15 million Americans are all of the people who are at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis.

As an organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with food allergies, FARE’s mission is directly impacted by American Airlines’ explicit and discriminatory policy of denying pre-boarding to individuals with food allergies”, the advocacy organization stated in its complaint, as it is asking for full and complete retraction of the discriminatory policy and mandated training to ensure American Airlines adopts a uniform approach to prevent its employees from continuing to apply discriminatory policies against those with allergies.”

American Airlines: Nut Allergies

The following text is extracted from the official policy of American Airlines pertaining to nut allergies:

American recognizes that some passengers are allergic to peanut and other tree nuts. Although we do not serve peanuts, we do serve other nut products (such as warmed nuts) and there may be trace elements of unspecified nut ingredient, including peanut oils, in meals and snacks. 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. Our planes are cleaned regularly, but these cleanings are not designed to ensure the removal of nut allergens, nor are our air filtration systems designed to remove nut allergens. Additionally, other customers may choose to bring peanuts or other tree nuts on board. Therefore, we are unable to guarantee that customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during flight, and we strongly encourage customers to take all necessary medical precautions to prepare for the possibility of exposure.

American Airlines is Not the Only Airline

Kyson and Sara Dana claimed that they were forced to leave the airplane operated by Allegiant Air on the afternoon of Monday, May 2, 2016 prior to a flight out of Provo because the mother alerted a member of the flight crew upon boarding the aircraft that their son Theo — who is two years old — is allergic to peanuts. The family was on their way home to Oakland when the flight attendant supposedly immediately told the couple that she did not recommend that they fly as passengers aboard the airplane.

What About Other Allergies?

Food allergies are not the only issue. Remember when passengers allegedly cheered, laughed and applauded at the removal of a boy — who was seven years old — from an airplane simply because he suffered a severe allergic reaction as the result of a dog which was present aboard the aircraft operated by Allegiant Air before flight 171 departed for Phoenix?

The dog — which was on the manifest of the flight — which was aboard the aircraft was reported to be a service animal. Unlike emotional support animals in general — with which there tends to be a conflict with passengers with allergies aboard airplanes, as demonstrated by this example which also happened aboard an airplane operated by American Airlines — legitimate service dogs are assistants who are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Should the service dog and its owner have been removed from the aircraft instead? Who indeed has more rights?

In order to prevent discrimination by commercial airlines — based both within and outside of the United States — against passengers on the basis of physical or mental disability, the Air Carrier Access Act was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1986; and here are where complaints may be registered against an airline via the official Internet web site of the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement division of the Department of Transportation of the United States…

…but despite the airlines specifically having their own rules pertaining to service animals — and, apparently, to people who have food allergies — provisions of the Air Carrier Access Act typically supersede the rules of the airline. The question, however, is this: as the Air Carrier Access Act is supposed to protect passengers with service animals as well as passengers with food allergies, against whom should action be taken?

Interestingly — two years ago today — the Canadian Transportation Agency was ordered by the Federal Court of Appeal to reconsider a ruling imposed on August of 2013 which required Air Canada to separate dogs from passengers allergic to dogs in its airline cabins on airplanes, finding that there was no significant evidence for the ruling and done without consideration to the argument from Air Canada that a less intrusive remedy could be found.

Do People Without Allergies Have Any Rights?

Many passengers look forward to when members of the flight crew give out bags of peanuts during a flight. Imagine being a passenger who has not been able to get something to eat all day due to delays of multiple flights; no time to pick anything up; and vendors closed for business at certain hours as three of many reasons — only to be told that you cannot eat a small bag of peanuts because a fellow passenger with a food allergy is seated nearby. “I am sorry; but all we have are peanuts” might be the response from a flight attendant when asking if there are any other choices — such as cookies or pretzels.

Passengers should be able to eat whatever they want without having to be concerned about whether or not there are fellow passengers nearby who are sensitive to certain foods. The problem is that the inside of an airplane is a tight space; so food allergies can be exacerbated.

This article addresses possible solutions to dealing with passengers with food allergies — including a ban on serving foods known to cause allergic reactions; the creation of a safe zone or buffer zone for people with severe reactions of foods to which they are allergic; or a patch for people who suffer from allergies associated with peanuts, which had reportedly been effective in extensive tests conducted throughout North America and Europe — in addition to the use of an epinephrine pen.

Obviously, not all of the solutions are considered viable.

Hopefully, the new formal guidance from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the United States — suggesting that foods in which peanuts are an ingredient should be introduced as early as possible into the diets of infants in order to prevent the development of an allergy to peanuts later on in life — will help to resolve this issue in the future. Perhaps similar guidance may be possible for the prevention or mitigation of other food allergies as well.

Summary

Ideally, every passenger aboard every airplane would be as comfortable as possible; but that scenario is more unrealistic than achievable due to myriad factors — food allergies being only one of them. In a perfect world, no one should be removed from an airplane against his or her will, as that action can be perceived as discrimination.

The founder of The No Nut Traveler — whose son has been diagnosed with a food allergy — advises people on how to wisely choose an airline; research food allergy policies; and take simple precautions to mitigate their risk.

“I believe the most critical precaution one can take is to pre-board the aircraft in order to be able to thoroughly clean the area from the last occupant”, according to Lianne Mandelbaum. “This becomes even more important if the airline you have chosen serves your allergen. Children are especially likely to put their hands in their mouths. Those of us without food allergies worry about the germ factor on planes, but for a food allergic person, what was eaten before we boarded is potentially lethal if we touch it and then ingest it.”

As for the hands in the mouth, you probably know what I am about to say, as I have written it many times: wash your hands — but also ensure that the hands of children are thoroughly washed as well. That simple action could play a role towards being part of the prevention of an uncomfortable condition caused by food allergies.

In the meantime, this article — which I wrote back on Monday, December 14, 2015 — lists the detailed policies of 18 airlines based in the United States and Canada pertaining to passengers with a peanut allergy. Links are also conveniently provided in that article so that research can be performed in advance of a flight to best deal with a passenger aboard an airplane who has a peanut allergy. This is in case you want to compare the policies of airlines and determine which one is best for you on which to travel.

No one should feel like he or she is being discriminated due to a condition which is not due to any fault; but as referenced in this article, the overall issue is not nearly as simple as that…

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

12 thoughts on “Is the Food Allergy Policy of American Airlines Considered Discriminatory?”

  1. Connie G says:

    Allowing someone with a peanut or other allergy to preboard and wipe down their area is not an unreasonable request. Not sure why the airlines are against it. It doesn’t cost them anything. In fact, if anything it makes their airplane cleaner.

  2. gobluetwo says:

    For airborne allergens, do people with heightened sensitivities ever wear dust masks/respirators? Easy enough to carry around and put on, although keeping it on could be a challenge with little kids.

    1. Lisa Papini says:

      Yes, they do. Some parents also bring seat covers for their child’s seat. Parents also pre-board and wipe down the seats, tray tables, arm rests, etc. Preboarding the plane to do the wipe-down means that overall boarding is quicker because passengers don’t wait in the aisle while the parent is cleaning the seats.

  3. AMJ says:

    A lot of misinformation in this post, but I’m going to start with the key problem with AA’s policy which is not allowing individuals with food allergies to pre-board to clean their seats.

    I am the parent of a tween with multiple, severe, non-peanut food allergies. I would like more than anything for my child to not have this life threatening condition so I wouldn’t feel the need to preboard to ensure that her seat is adequately cleaned. As you know, people bring all sorts of food onto planes and I can assure you that the airline does not adequately clean the seats or tray tables in between flights. I would say that 90% of the time there is visable food residue on the tray tables. My daughter’s area needs to be cleaned, and if not allowed to preboard, I will have to take care of this during regular boarding. I’m pretty efficient, but it takes a couple of minutes to take care of this process before she takes her seat. That’s a couple of minutes where the boarding process for the entire plane will be slowed down because my daughter will still be in the aisle. Next, I need to make my way to the back of the plane to dispose of the dirty wipes and wash my hands. Then, I get to try and swim upstream as I make my way back to my seat, again causing issues and delay during the boarding process. It makes no sense to deny someone with a severe food allergy that needs to clean their seat area the chance to preboard.

    Telling people with food allergies not to fly is the equivalent of telling someone in a wheelchair not to fly. Both are medical disabilities. Pursuant to the ADA, individuals with food allergies should be entitled to reasonable accommodation. Preboarding to allow for a person with food allergies to personally clean their seating area seems extremely reasonable and unobtrusive to the rest of the passengers. It is the epitome of taking self responsibility.

    I would also like to comment on a couple of points that you made that are not accurate. You mention “a patch for people who suffer from allergies associated with peanuts, which had reportedly been effective in extensive tests conducted throughout North America and Europe — in addition to the use of an epinephrine pen.”

    There is no magic patch that you can put on that will protect you from food allergies, which the way you have written this, is what you seem to imply. What you are referring to is one of the immunotherapy trials. First, immunotherapy for food allergies is still in clinical trials so this is not something that is readily accessible to everyone. Second, immunotherapy is a very long process that takes months or years. This patch isn’t just something that you can slap on as you are getting on the plane to prevent anaphylaxis!

    The other part that I would like to comment on is your comment about handwashing. “As for the hands in the mouth, you probably know what I am about to say, as I have written it many times: wash your hands — but also ensure that the hands of children are thoroughly washed as well. That simple action could play a role towards being part of the prevention of an uncomfortable condition caused by food allergies.”

    I hope that this comment is directed at others and how they should wash their hands after eating as a way to help protect those with food allergies because, if I am incorrect and you are directing this comment at people with food allergies in general, that is incredibly offensive. Families with food allergies are typically obsessive with handwashing. My children and I wash our hands so frequently that they are usually raw. This statement of yours is a bit of a preachy lecture that seems appropriate from a board certified allergist, but not so much from a travel blogger.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I appreciate your response from the point of view of a parent of a tween with multiple, severe, non-peanut food allergies, AMJ. Thank you for taking the time to post your comment.

      Forget about any pre-boarding procedure: I would like for your child to not have this life threatening condition — period. Let’s start with that.

      As for the ritual you must perform to ensure that your child has as safe an environment as possible aboard an airplane, I personally believe that you should not even have to be required to clean the area. Ideally, employees of the airline should ensure that the interior of the airplane is as clean as possible for all passengers…

      …but absent of that, I completely agree that the policy to deny someone with a severe food allergy a few extra minutes to pre board in order to clean their seat area makes no sense.

      As for the one paragraph with which you expressed your disagreement — denying people with food allergies not to travel; use of a patch; or use of an epinephrine pen — I acknowledged that disagreement in the article with the statement “Obviously, not all of the solutions are considered viable” in highlighting that not only is there no magic patch — there is no magic solution to this issue. That was my point, as people in the past have posted statements which can be perceived to be insensitive — such as people with severe food allergies should just stay home.

      I proudly plead guilty with preaching and lecturing about washing hands, which was directed at people who do not wash their hands properly — or at all. I am continually amazed at how many people do not take the few minutes to wash their hands properly, which could ultimately mitigate or prevent health problems for both themselves and others as a result. If you wash your hands so frequently that they are usually raw, then that comment was obviously not directed at you.

  4. Jen S says:

    AMJ, you echoed so much of what I immediately thought of while reading the article. I came here to post my thoughts about there being no such thing as a magic patch that you can just slap on, but found your comment sufficient enough. I, instead, will comment to say thank you to you for putting it all so eloquently.

    Brian, I certainly appreciate you being open to discussing the topic and for highlighting the collective voice of food allergic families…and, yes, we are a tribe of one. Apart from my comment above, I just caution perhaps on the delivery …some suggestions felt cavalier (I.e/patch, handwashing). It’s not that simple. And, yes, my son’s hands are raw as well….and I wish I owned stock in Wet Ones.

    You’re right, there’s no magic solution, but I think if we continue to highlight the need for discussion around the topic, as you’ve done, I think we’ll make strides.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      AMJ is not the only reader who knows how to post comments eloquently, Jen S. You have hit the nail right on the head as to my intention: continuing to highlight the discussion not only pertaining to food allergies and how serious they can be — to the point of life-threatening — but respect for other human beings in general.

      If you and AMJ initially believed that my comments pertaining to possible solutions — not to be confused with suggestions, as I do not personally condone or recommend them — then I failed on the delivery of the message; and I appreciate both of you constructively pointing that out to me.

      Thank you.

  5. Awl says:

    As a parent of a child with life threatening food allergies I am thankful to all involved in bringing this complaint forward. By allowing people to pre board and wipe down seats the airlines minimize the risk of dealing with a medical emergency at 35,000 feet. How could anyone argue against the need to allow for that? This is a case where doing the right thing is so, so easy.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      …so let’s do something about it, Awl.

      If you and other readers who feel similarly want to get together and take action of some sort, I will be more than happy to do what I can to spread the word.

      I am continuously learning more and more about food allergies aboard airplanes thanks to you and other readers; and if allowing people with food allergies pre-boarding privileges in order to create a safer environment during a flight by cleaning the area around them will go a long way towards that goal, then let’s alert the airline.

      I have some friends and contacts who might help spread the word as well. Thoughts?

  6. Jen S says:

    Brian, thank you for your continued responses to all of us. I appreciate your ability to “hear us” and for your enthusiasm to support our community. I, too, am happy to keep the conversation and effort moving forward. Let me know how I can help!

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I should be asking you to let me know how I can help, Jen S.

      The restaurant review I posted yesterday is a place where there is a special menu for people with peanut allergies and tree nut allergies; and I noted that in the article…

  7. Frank Jacobson says:

    Hi Brian:
    Thanks for your article. As a parent of multiple children with non-peanut life-threatening food allergies, it is upsetting that so much of the focus remains on peanuts. There are 8 major allergens and plenty of others outside of those top 8, that can be equally dangerous. For some reason, the focus is too often on peanuts.

    One of my children has a severe dairy allergy. The amount of dairy that is found out there is shocking. Everybody on the plane is drinking coffee, spilling their cream all over the place, and of course the coffee itself, mixed with cream is always spilling. Then we have powdered cheese. This cheese found on Doritos, Pirate Booty (and other cheese popcorn), and Cheez-It crackers is truly horrifying. The powder gets on the eater’s hands and then they touch EVERYTHING. This is besides the fact that the powder gets in the air just from opening the bag and grabbing the stuff.

    It’s made more difficult by the false perception that peanuts are somehow in their own special category. They are not. There are no allergens that are more important that any others. There are no allergens that are more deadly than any others. If we are going to make demands, we need to ensure that we accommodate the full breadth of affected people.

    Thanks,
    Frank

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