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Allergies and flying

March 21, 2008 @ 01:19 By: gordon Category: Health, Seen on the 'net, Travelling

I’ve been reading a travel-related blog called Gadling lately.  Recently, one of the bloggers there recounted his experiences on a Southwest Airlines flight and ranted about the fact that he wasn’t served peanuts on the flight.  Apparently, Southwest Airlines opted to not serve peanuts because one of the other passengers was very allergic to peanuts.  The blogger was very skeptical that there are people with allergies that are so severe that they can’t even be in the vicinity of the allergen.

Unfortunately, there are.  And there’s an increasing number of people with nut allergies. 

As someone who is allergic to peanuts — though not to the extreme of the passenger Southwest was accommodating on the flight in question — I can’t fault Southwest Airlines’ actions and suggest that the blogger needs to lighten up.  I flew to Honolulu via Atlanta a couple of years ago and on the outbound flight from Atlanta I asked the flight attendant for pretzels rather than peanuts because I’m allergic to peanuts.  She got quite concerned and gently chastised me for not alerting the gate staff because their policy is to create a peanut-free zone a few rows in front and back of the person with the allergies.  I assured her that my allergy is not that severe, which seemed to mollify her a bit.  I was quite surprised that they would do that.

So next time you’re on a flight and they aren’t serving peanuts because someone is allergic to them ask the flight attendant for some pretzels or chips and be grateful that the airline cares enough about its customers’ health to make accommodations like this.

Or would you rather have been on a flight where a passenger had an extremely reaction and went into shock or even died, both of which would have resulted in the flight being diverted.

7 Responses to “Allergies and flying”


  1. The problem is that when you ban peanuts, and perfume, and milk, and chocolate, and …, and…, and…

    The question really becomes “what is a reasonable accommodation”. As a person who has allergies as well, I *LOATHE* bans, “peanut free zones” and so forth. While it is a nice gesture toward the person with allergies, it’s a huge shaft on everyone else. It may not seem like it, but it’s asking the whole world to accommodate something that the person with the deadly severe allergy could quite realistically accommodate themselves by travelling another way. Get one child in a school with a peanut allergy, and every other child in the school gets to go without PB&J, granola, and a whole host of other foods to accommodate that child. That is just WRONG on so many levels.

    Good food labelling is important. I wouldn’t want to get a mouthful of yogurt any more than a person with a peanut allergy would want to get a mouthful of peanuts. But people with severe allergies need to take the personal responsibility on themselves for protection, not force the rest of the world to be responsible for their protection.

  2. gordon says:

    In this case, it’s not the person with the allergies making the decision, it’s the airline. I think you have to treat airplanes differently than most situations because they’re a confined closed system. If something is in the environment, it’s not leaving anytime soon because you’re in a glorified tin can.

    As for banning perfumes, there was someone in another group on my floor who was using hand lotion that gave me a splitting head ache. It wasn’t a matter of not liking the smell. There was something in the stuff that induced migraine-like pain. Ultimately, we asked the person to not use the hand lotion.

    Arbitrary bans aren’t good things (except in cases like smoking in restaurants and similar public places), but sometimes they’re needed. Identifying when they are appropriate is the challenge.

  3. Squid says:

    I agree with what you are saying in principle, but I think that if you’re so allergic to peanuts that someone on the same plane as you (or same classroom as you) having peanuts will cause you to explode, then perhaps the onus should be on you not to get into that situation rather than on the situation to bend for you.

    That is to say, maybe people who are so deathly allergic to peanuts shouldn’t fly. Alternately, airlines could warn people in advance which are certified nut-free flights. Similarly, if there’s so many peanut-averse children, maybe there’s enough to make 1 peanut-free school, etc.

    Someone in the Second Cup today was wearing perfume-from-hell that choked me up… but should the store ban perfume, or should I just take my business elsewhere?

  4. gordon says:

    You’re described three distinct environments: an airplane where there aren’t many options for people to get up and leave to go to an allergen-free locale and still going from Point A to Point B; a school where there are some options though ultimately students do not have an option in whether they attend (unless homeschooling is a viable alternative); and a store which is a transient environment for the customers and probably not somewhere that a person with extreme nut allergies is going to work anyways.

    There are plenty of nut alternatives that an airline can serve their clients in place of the cliché packs of peanuts. Most airlines don’t seem to be serving peanuts anyways (or almost anything else, at least in economy class), though I don’t know if this is because of allergy issues or simply because they’re being “economical”. Because of the way airplanes move around the system during the course of a day, ensuring that a certified peanut-free airplane will be where it’s needed at any given time is a logistical nightmare. I think the strategy Southwest Airlines used in the Gadling entry is probably the only reasonable approach if they’re trying to continue to serve peanuts on most of their flights.

    Schools are in a difficult situation because the whole system is predicated on the majority of students attending the school closest to where they live. A peanut-free school is an intriguing idea but where do you situate them so that they don’t impose an excessive burden on the students attending them? I would think Ottawa would need four to make them reasonably close without requiring silly amounts of time to commute to and from the school. (There is research to suggest that young children shouldn’t be fed nuts anyways for health reasons, so maybe discouraging this isn’t a bad thing.)

    Stores are the simplest to handle because people probably expect to encounter allergens in most store environments that have food in them, particularly ones that make a practice of selling things with nuts in them. If you’re that allergic to nuts, you’re not going into these places anyways.

    As for your Second Cup experience today, I would stand farther away from the individual in question. If it’s an employee, you can either tolerate it, mention it discretely to the manager if it’s a recurring problem or take your business elsewhere.

  5. Squid says:

    oops, might have double posted.

  6. Squid says:

    Hmm, ok my original post didn’t come out. I guess I can’t quote.

    Environment 1: the airplane. People with allergies, indeed travellers in general, do not need to fly. They can drive, take a ship, take the train, walk, bike, bus, whatever. Generally, people prefer to be expedient, but there is no REQUIREMENT to do so. It is quite possible to live your whole life and never get on a plane, irrespective of what you do for a living unless you are in a flight crew. It is unreasonable, in my view, to require that everywhere you go banish everything you are allergic to. This will be a real issue soon enough – with baggage class flights dropping things like food service, people are going to be bringing on their own food. It’s not going to be long before Mr. Deathbypeanut sits beside Ms. PBandJ and has a conniption, or worse.

    Environment 2: the school. Ottawa is the finest example of a place where students have near unlimited choice of where to go. Nobody seems to go to their neighbourhood school. More to the point, many schools have banned peanuts. That’s wrong. If there was a single nut-free school then all the allergic kids could go there. It would be a reasonable accommodation to allow this if it isn’t already allowed under the rules. It is unreasonable to ban peanuts at all the schools in the board.

  7. gordon says:

    If I had to rely of modes of transportation other than aviation, there would be aspects of my job that I could not do within a reasonable amount of time. For example, though I can use the train to visit our Toronto office, the same can’t be said for visits to our Edmonton office unless I’m prepared to spend several times as much in terms of both time and money.

    The key is that the passengers on the Southwest Airlines flight aren’t requiring the airline to ban the peanuts, that is something the airline is offering to do voluntarily, which is the key thing. And, like I said earlier, I don’t know why peanuts aren’t offered on many flights. Perhaps it’s a “ban on peanuts” but it’s just as likely that they’re offering a “more modern” snack alternative (or cutting out snacks altogether).



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