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.
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.