The safety of nut allergic flyers has come under the spotlight this week, after Fae Platten (aged 4) “lost consciousness on a plane when a selfish passenger ignored three warnings not to open a packet of nuts”. Fortunately, she recovered having been given the EpiPen but was “left with badly blistered lips and a swollen tongue”.
As Maureen Jenkins, Clinical Director of Allergy UK explained:
“Airborne particles from nuts have the potential to kill those who are allergic to them. These particles are even more readily inhaled from the recycled conditioned air in an aircraft.”
Whilst Ryanair deserve credit for making the announcements asking passengers not to eat nuts, for me this incident highlights the need for all airlines to implement an actual ban. Can you picture the scenario if an airline said “Well, we said we weren’t selling fireworks, and we politely asked people to refrain from lighting them, but unfortunately he had a box in his hand luggage and he didn’t see the problem…”. Ludicrous, exactly.
To be meaningful a request needs to be enforceable. Picture the scenario if the police had no power to enforce speed limits. Although there is a 30 mph sign at the sign of the road, someone is run over by a driver doing 70. Would society find it acceptable for:
- The police to say they did all they could: they put up a speed limit sign.
- The driver to say I like driving my car fast: that’s my right. If I might hurt someone, well, what are they doing out and about and trying to cross a road?
Yet these types of justifications are raised when airlines say “we made a PA announcement” and passengers say “it’s my right to eat peanuts” and “so don’t take your allergic child on a plane”.
At the moment, nut allergic families are grateful for the 30 mph sign. However, as the Ryanair incident illustrates, even when an airline makes a request, that may not be sufficient.
As I understand it, it’s the dust from nuts which makes them pose a particular airborne risk. The confined space of an aircraft cabin with its recycled air then compounds the problem. It’s not the same as sitting on a bus or train. And added to that, it’s a damn sight easier to summons an ambulance when you’re not at 30,000 feet.
So if there is a nut allergic passenger, and nuts onboard could be potentially life threatening: don’t nuts need to be banned?
How can nut allergic passengers reduce their risk of an in flight reaction?
According to a 2013 study by Professor Greenhawt and colleagues, the following steps might reduce a nut allergy sufferer’s chance of an allergic reaction on a plane:
- Making a request for accommodation from the airline.
- Wiping down your tray table.
- Not using the plane’s pillows or blankets.
- Asking for a nut free buffer zone.
- Asking the flight staff to make a request announcement that passengers do not to consume nut containing products.
- Requesting a peanut free and/or tree nut free meal, or not eating the airline food at all (Sam Sadleir’s experience on Virgin Atlantic highlights the benefits of taking your own safe food onboard).
For those airlines who provide buffer zones, it seems a typical request would be for 3 rows either side of the nut allergic passenger. However, the Jet Blue website, for example, states they will organise “a buffer zone one row in front and one row behind the allergic person”.
In Fae Platten’s case, the man with the bag of nuts was four rows away. The Mirror reported that although Fae’s mum rushed her to “the front of the plane, the air conditioning meant there was no way she could get away from the nut particles circulating in the air”.
It therefore seems that whilst the risk reduction strategies might help ordinarily, a buffer zone or an unenforceable polite PA request would not cover the scenario of someone sensitive enough to react to airborne proteins, where a selfish and/or ignorant passenger decides to go ahead and launch nut particles into the air regardless.
What happened to Fae (and also the reaction suffered by a 9-year-old girl on a flight to Dublin earlier this month) underline what could happen when flying with a nut allergy. Whilst I don’t think these incidents would necessarily make us swear off air travel with our son, they will serve to heighten my anxiety next time we fly.
I’m just hoping that the press coverage of both of these incidents sparks a review of the airlines’ policies, and leads to them banning nuts (after all, the alternative solution of banning nut allergics would surely be disability discrimination!).
Please sign the petitions to ban nuts from planes…
Lynn Noble from Ballyclare has launched a petition to all airlines to ban nuts and nut products from planes. If you haven’t already, please do sign and share the petition. The more attention this issue can receive the better.
Lianne Mandelbaum (@NoNutTraveler) is also campaigning in the US for nut allergic people to be able to fly safely on commercial airlines. In her powerful speech from a FARE event, she asked:
“Does a child have to die on an airplane in order for airlines to enact policies to protect allergic passengers?”
Sign her petition requiring airlines to institute a Bill of Rights for food allergic passengers here.
Which airlines are nut allergy friendly?
Last November, the Anaphylaxis Campaign produced a chart setting out the published policies for different airlines: Food allergies – airline comparison.
How have you fared in practice? Below are the details of the experiences Joanne, Steph and I had with Wizz Air, Thomson and Monarch respectively. It would be extremely useful to know which airlines accommodate nut allergies well – please post a comment below to share any recommendations!
“We flew to Faro with Monarch in March 2014. Before booking, I had called Monarch customer services to ask about their nut policy. I was assured that all I had to do was to call them after we had booked, to add a note of my son’s allergy to our booking. They sent me an email confirming that:
- We could bring our own food onboard (as they couldn’t guarantee their inflight meals would be free of nut traces).
- A note would be added to our booking so the check in, security and cabin crew staff are aware of D’s allergy and know we are carrying EpiPens.
- The sale of nuts would be restricted on our flights.
- The cabin crew would make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating any nuts or nut based products they may have with them.
I booked our flights, called customer services again, and was told D’s allergy had been noted against our booking. I called a couple of days prior to departure and again was assured that D’s allergy had been noted against our booking.
When we arrived at Manchester to fly out (and again when we arrived at Faro for the return journey), D’s allergy had NOT been noted against our booking!
We had to go through the rigmarole of the check in staff adding the details onto the system – which wasn’t straightforward at Faro when I spoke zero Portuguese and the check in lady had limited English.
Once these problems were overcome, the security, gate and cabin staff could not have been more helpful. They didn’t sell nuts and they did make the PA announcement as promised.”
(Louise, March 2014)
For the full story, see Holiday in Portugal with a nut allergy.
“hello…just thought I would share my latest travel experience with Wizz air….that flies mostly on the continent but also to Luton, Doncaster, Glasgow and Liverpool. I was amazed to find they had a promotion on board where if you bought an alcoholic drink you got a free packet of peanuts!!! and they also sold peanuts. I asked them discreetly if they would not promote or sell peanuts on the flight and they were very happy not too. On the outward journey they made an announcement on the tannoy and on the way back they just didn’t sell/promote them. I have emailed the company to thank them and also suggested they looked for alternative snacks… I am keen to show gratitude and have extended the opportunity to provide further info if need be… “
(Joanne, June 2014)
“I was disappointed with Thomson airlines though – they had no record of M’s allergy despite being informed by the holiday company, and the rather dismissive stewardess on the inbound flight just said, “does he have his epipen?” when we told her! Practically speaking though, this didn’t cause a problem as we took snacks and bought pringles that M could eat if he felt a bit peckish; we hadn’t ever intended to have the airline food. Last week we did get an apology from Thomson after I made my concerns known to Sovereign, the holiday company… hopefully it might make a difference next time, or to someone else in the same boat (or on the same plane!) as us.”
(Steph, May 2014)
For more details of Steph’s trip to Gran Canaria, see Steph’s story: Holiday in Gran Canaria with a nut allergy.
Who have you flown with? Please do share your experiences by posting a comment below – let’s start a list of helpful airlines!
- The Mirror, Nut allergy girl, 4, stopped breathing when plane passenger ignored THREE warnings not to open packet of nuts by Nina Massey (14 August 2014).
- Allergy UK, News Flash: Allergy UK commend Ryanair on air safety (18 August 2014).
- Greenhawt et al, International Study of Risk-Mitigating Factors and In-Flight Allergic Reactions to Peanut and Tree Nut (JACI, 11 January 2013).
- The Telegraph, Sam Sadleir’s ‘nut-free’ airline meal sent him into shock by Tom Rowley (15 December 2013).
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Safer Flying Strategies for Travelers with Peanut or Nut Allergies by Kids With Food Allergies Foundation.
- Irish Independent, Plane diverted back to Dublin after girl’s nut allergy mid flight by Sarah Stack (5 August 2014).
- Petition to Ban nuts and nut products from planes.
- US Petition Requiring Airlines to Institute a Bill of Rights for Food Allergic Children/Adult Passengers.
- Anaphylaxis Campaign, Food allergies – airline comparison (November 2013).
- AAAAI, Can peanut/tree nut allergic passengers avert an in-flight allergic reaction? (1 March 2013).
- Allergic Living, Flying With Allergies by Gina Clowes (October 2013).
- New York Times blog, Wisdom From Flyers With Nut Allergies by Jan Hoffman (20 March 2013).
- New York Times blog, What Should Airlines Do About Children With Peanut Allergies? by Abby Ellin (14 November 2013).