Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

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.

  1. Everyone is such a special snowflake that it would be impossible for institutions to accommodate everyone’s needs. As someone with severe food allergies as well as severe allergies to some animals, I make sure I always have the appropriate meds handy and make sure I don’t consume anything that I’m not 100% sure will be safe for me to eat. I have been lucky enough to not have encountered an animal on-board that I’m severely allergic to… but I’m not sure what I’d do if I ever did. I hope a human passenger’s well-being would be considered top priority rather than kicking that passenger off the flight (commercial flights ARE meant for people, no?).

    I think majority of the burden falls on the person w/the allergies (since we’re the only ones who know the ins and outs of our specific allergies), but it would certainly be really appreciated if those around us could help out a little bit (like not consuming peanuts for that flight or lying about your pet being a support animal). I don’t “expect” this or think people “should” do this, but it would be showing compassion toward a fellow human who may actually experience great suffering (or even die) because of an allergic attack.

    I think airlines are afraid that someone will have a severe allergic attack on-board (and possibly not survive it because the person experiencing the severe allergic reaction forgot to bring an epi-pen – or they didn’t know they were allergic to something and the airline didn’t have an epi-pen) and try to sue the airline for being negligent.

  2. Nut allergic people can only harm themselves. They responsible for their intake. On the other hand, people with animals (pet or esa) make others uncomfortable. Plane is not built for animal. It was installed with seats, not cages. Fortunately, we live in age of hypocritism and ass licker, so those who shouldn’t fly at all can do it in the name of freedom and equality, while sacrificing comfort of others.

    1. My peanut allergy is not limited to ingestion. I get a rash, hives and swelling where it contacts my skin. I have life threatening reactions from airborne (I.e people shaking nuts out of a bag releases dust in the air I now inhale). I always have my 2 epi pens with me, but I think. It is possible for others to harm me.

  3. A life threatening food allergy is atypical to some of the other disabilities encountered when flying. It is a disability that can impose on others. Although tricky to navigate, flying with a severe food allergy can be successful but this is done with the knowledge and help of the flight crew. Keeping the medical condition private may prove a disservice. That would mean no announcement to the other passengers. My son has a life threatening peanut allergy and with the help of the crew and some very kind passengers, we have had many successful flights.

  4. Crosswalks, helmets for motorcycle riders, safety equipment for athletes, floaties for the little one learning to swim, stop lights, no more lead paints, vaccines, etc… All meant to kept people safe from harm. With good reason! Why is it I always see others using “special snowflake” when discussing food allergy safety?? Are those playing on the field with helmets & paddings on “special snowflakes” because they want to live and/or avoid harm!? You still enjoy the game don’t you? Well you’ll still get to your destination. People can DIE. Epinephrine doesn’t always work for everyone. When did a food become more important than a human life? Is a game more important than a human life? Why are there people so resentful towards it? FA individuals & families do not enjoy inconveniencing others, but unfortunately it’s necessary in order to avoid harm. Living with this disease is NOT easy. And it’s made harder by those who can’t be supportive and add to the misconceptions & “joke” about it. Having nuts on board DOES create a danger to those allergic. Eating a peanut isn’t the only way it can harm those allergic. The dust & skin from the nuts are everywhere, not just your flight, but the flights before yours as well.
    Allowing to preboard, creating a buffer zone, forgoing nuts for a couple of hours, having epinephrine on board, having a plan in place, etc… should not be a big deal to others. I would think others would prefer those precautions as opposed to having an emergency landing or witnessing an anaphylactic reaction not knowing if the person will make it. If you can’t be a part of the solution, don’t be a part of the problem.

    1. Tricia, you hit the nail on the head. thank you.

      Great article. Unfortunately this debate will continue , despite the ability of a non-allergic person to survive without eating nuts for 2 to 6 hours.

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