Privacy of Allergy Sufferers Being Abused by Airlines?
When Lianne Mandelbaum took her son Joshua to the office of the pediatrician back in June of 2017, the receptionist peeled away the little slip which normally obscures the name of her son for the purpose of protecting his privacy after she signed in at the desk…
Privacy of Allergy Sufferers Being Abused by Airlines?
…and although health information privacy is taken seriously at medical offices across the United States, that same privacy seems to be disregarded once an allergy sufferer arrives at an airport. Doctors must adhere to what is known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — or HIPAA — which sets out strict provisions to safeguard the privacy of personal medical information…
…but must airlines follow a similar policy?
Answering this question would depend on the type of allergy. Using allergies to peanuts as an example, striking a balance is not easy due to the ranges of peanut allergies from mild to severe. According to this article which I wrote pertaining to peanut allergies aboard airplanes back on Sunday, December 13, 2015, a variety of possible solutions to what to do about people who suffer from a severe reaction to the presence of peanuts — which can lead to fatalities — have been discussed…
…and in order to accommodate the person who suffers from peanut allergies, giving critical information to the airline is an important key factor; but “Airline staff then share this personal information with others — gate agents, flight crew members, pilots and, in the most egregious cases, the information can be used to kick you off the plane”, according to this article written by Mandelbaum for Allergic Living, which imparts an example of unnecessary stress and humiliation suffered by the family of an allergy sufferer when they were escorted off of an airplane prior to a flight.
Does that constitute an abuse of privacy of the person who suffers from a peanut allergy? The answer is not so clear cut.
Airlines cannot refuse travel to a passenger solely based on disability, as per the Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives of the United States in 1986. It was designed 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. This is especially true if the potential risk of the health and safety of other passengers can be mitigated using reasonable modifications in policies or procedures…
…but if not, airlines can refuse travel to that passenger.
Medical documents which demonstrate that a person is indeed fit to fly can only be required when the condition of the passenger raises doubt that the person can complete a flight without extraordinary medical assistance during the flight — such as traveling in a stretcher or incubator; or needing oxygen during the flight.
What Is the Solution?
After reading the aforementioned article and not seeing a definitive solution being offered which would be mutually equitable to all sides of this conundrum, I asked Lianne Mandelbaum — who is the founder of The No Nut Traveler — what she thought would be as close to the ideal solution as possible.
“Ideally, I would like to see the ability of a passenger when booking their ticket to notify the airline of the food allergy”, she replied. “On the day of travel, the food allergic flier should be able to pre-board the aircraft to clean for past contamination. It is also prudent to alert those around you and some airlines take the step of informing those passengers and asking them to not consume the allergen. Lastly — but certainly of paramount importance — all airlines should be required to carry easy to use auto-injectors, concurrent with training staff on the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction.”
Mandelbaum acknowledges that most of us have a need for travel in the global environment in which we live today, as travel may be required for work, to get to college, to see a sick or dying relative, or simply for pleasure — but “with the prevalence of allergies continually increasing in the general population, it’s only logical that at some point there will be a severe consequence — possibly death — due to lack of regulations on airlines. It is my opinion that clear and consistent food allergy policies across all airlines are much needed today.”
Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways have been recognized by Food Allergy Research and Education — which is an advocacy organization that works on behalf of the 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies — for their commitment to accommodating the food allergy community through implementation of voluntary forward-thinking policies. Believing that other airlines can follow the examples of Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways despite the complexity of the intricate logistics of their organizations, Mandelbaum expressed that “Airline travel would be far less stressful for those with food allergies if all airlines could choose to treat this potentially life-threatening condition with dignity and respect.”
Some airlines argue that by instituting a food allergy policy, it would lull the passenger who is allergic to food allergies into a false sense of security. “That is patently false”, Mandelbaum argued. “Any food allergic person knows the risk of exposure can never be eliminated. We don’t seek guarantees of a safe environment, but simply ask for the ability to mitigate the chance of an inflight reaction.
Lianne Mandelbaum finds nothing funny pertaining to joking about people who suffer significantly from the adverse effects of food allergies, as comedian George Lopez did in a recent comedy routine. “Comedians may or may not be ignorant, but if audiences, and society for that matter, stop and think and ask ourselves — is it really so funny when humor is hurtful? If we do not raise objections to this kind of comedy, we are teaching those around us that food allergies can be funny. It is then no surprise why kids are anxious, embarrassed, and bullied due food allergies. When we make light of anaphylaxis, we perpetuate the misleading stigma regarding food allergies.”
Believing that that particular type of comedy only exacerbates the issue, Mandelbaum added that “The fact that the food allergy protections on planes do not exist in a dependable capacity make comedian jokes even more somber.”
I do not see anything wrong with laughing at ourselves and our problems as long as it is funny and done in a tasteful manner; and perhaps George Lopez failed at both in this case — but that opinion is subjective.
Attempting to successfully accommodate everyone with a wide range of special dietary needs, health issues and even emotional support animals who are confined in a narrow metal tube for hours is one of the most difficult puzzles to solve — but the attempt must occur, as no one should trump someone else in an ideal world.
My personal experience indicates that doing so is not a major issue most of the time…
…but try telling that to someone who suffers from a severe food allergy — or allergy of any type, for that matter — especially when their private information is used against them when attempting to be passengers aboard an airplane.
Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.