How I Manage Flying With Food Allergies & The Desire For Consistent Policy Changes

Taken from my travel journal:

Sunday, June 17, 2007, Australia

I was almost turned away at the gate from my flight leaving Melbourne to go to Darwin because I mentioned my nut allergy. The ignorance and lack of empathy still freezes me into a state of shock sometimes and in that moment, it makes it difficult to advocate. How do people not understand? I am anaphylactic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, etc. I would rather not be surrounded by them throughout my flight. I’m not saying I won’t fly if they serve nuts, etc. I’m just asking if possible not to serve them so I’m more comfortable. That’s all.

Every time I come across another case like this, it reinforces the self-reliance that I have to have and the assertion to stand up for myself. In this unusual circumstance, we decided to book a flight right before it was leaving. This left me with the only option which was to ask right before boarding the flight if they were planning to serve nuts. That is all I asked. I was not looking for any accommodations other than to not be surrounded by my allergens if possible. The head steward, Troy, told me that they were serving cashews and gave me a very difficult time. He was condescending and rude about my allergies and didn’t even try to empathize. Troy went to check with the pilot and did end up with the approval to not serve the cashews. However, I was told by the pilot that I was flying at my own risk and they were not liable. I get it. Nobody is liable for anything. They asked if I had my “pen” on me and explained there would be nowhere to stop if there was a problem. Then they tried to get me to sign a waiver. I was not allowed onboard unless I signed it so I wasn’t left with a choice. I’ve never had to do this before and I don’t think it is a fair practice. This particular experience has sparked even more ignition for a desire to change this process. I don’t want to ever be called out in front of passengers and forced to sign another waiver.

This situation happened to me nearly 12 years ago with my then boyfriend and I have been in a tango with the airlines ever since. Should I say something, or shouldn’t I; will they let me on, or won’t they? My ultimate goal is to always feel safe and comfortable, but having to pick and choose how to do that because of lack of education leads to elevated frustration when it comes to flying with peanut allergies and any other food allergies.

Flying has also become such a controversial topic and one that I don’t usually choose to write about. I know food allergies are more than just peanuts, however peanuts and flying are synonymous with each other, which is why they are always linked. I am asked about flying on a near daily basis and due to recent events in the news, I feel that it is even more timely to share my thoughts.

How Time Has Changed My Process

Growing up, there were no airline accommodations.  My parent started flying with me when I was a baby. This was before any online resources were available on food allergies and educational organizations had yet to become established. My parents didn’t know any other families that had a child with food allergies. When we flew, my mom took the proper precautions she felt comfortable with but there were no announcements, no pre-boarding, and nuts were always served.

The first time I remember an airline acknowledging my nut allergies, I was in high school on a Southwest flight. On this trip my destination was to Baltimore to visit my best friend and her family over a school holiday. It was my first time flying Southwest and they took good care of me. They didn’t serve peanuts and I remember they asked me if I wanted to pre-board and made an announcement. I had never witnessed any of these accommodations, and wasn’t even aware they were a possibility. My parents taught me self-sufficiency and independence at a young age, so I used the tools I was taught and never knew while time was passing and food allergies were becoming more prevalent that others were asking for accommodations. After that flight, I noticed accommodations happening more and more often and began asking for some myself.

What Accommodations Have I Asked For?

I have always tried to make my requests minimal and focused on what I need to feel most comfortable. I’ve asked to pre-board because I think it is easier and gives me a chance to get out of everyone’s way. I also ask if they are planning to serve bags of nuts. I have no issue if the food may contain my food allergens or has them in the ingredients of a snack. I’m not going to eat anyway. My only concern is having bags of nuts passed out to entire planes full of passengers. That is when I feel uncomfortable, so I would rather a.) not have them served (ideally) or b.) know ahead of time so I’m not caught off guard. I’ve never asked for announcements. Some airlines will make them though anyway.

There are some airlines however where I won’t mention my nut allergy for a few reasons.

Airlines are Consistently Inconsistent

Although I believe you should always trust your gut and make the right decision for you and your family, notifying the airline about your allergies can lead to the potential removal from the flight. Whether I call an airline ahead (which rarely matters because more often than not it isn’t noted on my booking), or tell them at the gate about my allergies, every flight experience is its own and consistently inconsistent. I will often still call the airline ahead however it rarely matters.

What does seem to matter is what happens at the gate. With many factors to consider, from flight time of day, to length of flight, to which airline, I consider each of these before I decide if I will tell the airline about my allergies. Whether an airline has policies in place or not, all that seems to matter is who you speak to at the gate and on the flight. They will determine if they let you pre-board, if they will serve nuts, and potentially if you will be allowed on the flight. This means that you could have a great experience and feel totally comfortable or you could have the worst experience and feel unsafe, and usually it has very little to do with you. Certainly, some people ask for way too many accommodations and it is unnecessary. I don’t expect safe snacks or meals provided by the airline. I also don’t think food or nut bans are the answer. There are many different food allergies, all of which can lead to anaphylaxis. I also think the way you speak to people and the kindness you bring to the situation matters. Bringing an attitude of entitlement for example will not get you far.

Therefore, I decide on a per flight basis if I will notify the airline or not. I know that most do not follow consistent protocol with food allergies (even within their own airline) and that it depends on the kindness and understanding of whomever I speak to on the plane in that moment to have any possible accommodations (such as not serving bags of nuts to every passenger on the flight). I never know what to expect, so I expect the unexpected and hope for the best possible scenarios. I’ve had flight experiences ranging all across the board; from having asthma symptoms on a flight that serves nuts, to having no trouble at all on the flight, to being told by the pilot I should not fly. I’ve had to talk my way back on flights numerous times for mentioning my allergies. I’ve also had flight attendants who insisted on making an announcement to all passengers to not eat nuts and went above and beyond (even when this is way more than I ever expect or would ask for).

As someone who has flown countless airlines more times than I can possibly calculate, I have learned what I can control for myself and I focus on that when it comes to flying. I can carry wipes. I can quickly wipe off my area if I can’t pre-board. I can keep my emergency meds with me in my bag under the seat. I can pack a mask if I am worried about breathing the air. I can advocate for my needs and ask kindly for accommodations. Until there is change in consistent policies, we need to be realistic about the possibilities and focus on what you can control on the flight. Those of us who carry our epinephrine are probably more prepared than most. Remember that and focus on it.

Airlines also now like to ask you if you have an “airborne” allergy. I’m never really sure how to answer that and I find it to be a strange question. Have I had an anaphylactic reaction to proteins in the air, no. Have I had an asthmatic reaction, yes. However, would I define my food allergies as “airborne”, no. I mean I guess anyone could potentially although quite unlikely have a reaction like that. When you know you are trapped in a metal container up in the air 30,000 feet with an entire plane surrounded by passengers opening and eating your allergen, its uncomfortable and you feel like you have to be on guard. I have never thankfully had “airborne” anaphylaxis and know that nothing is impossible but that it would be extremely unlikely. I also don’t think that peanuts are magically going to attack me. However, knowing that everyone has it on their hands and is touching everything, from bathroom doorknobs to the tops of chairs when passing to the bathroom is not a fun feeling, especially for those of us that react to contact and get hives easily. My food allergies typically do not create any real anxiety in my life. They do create discomfort though. Also, I’m an adult, so I know not to lick my hands and to wash them before touching my face or eating food. Is that a real concern though for a parent of a toddler though? Yeah, I think it could be a real concern.

Until There Is Change, Here Is My Strategy

I calmly ask if they are serving everyone on board bags of nuts. If not, I leave it at that. If they are, that’s when I ask if they could choose an alternative due to my food allergies.

My Internal Checklist:

    • Confirm they aren’t passing out bags of peanuts and tree nuts to every passenger
    • Ask to pre-board if it is a later flight in the day
    • Wipe down my area
    • Choose a window seat so I feel like I have my own cubby of space to turn to and am farthest away from the food being served

Partnership Between Passenger & Crew

I see this as a partnership. Just like when I dine out at restaurants and I know that the communication needs to be clear between myself and the chef. Both food allergic passengers and the airlines need to take responsibility to do their part to work together. The allergic passenger needs to have reasonable expectations and requests and the airline needs to be knowledgeable, understanding, and aware of the protocols to follow.

What policies should be in place? Here is an initial overview of my thoughts…

First of all, epinephrine auto-injectors should be required on all flights. There is no excuse to only carry vials on board anymore. Unless airlines are planning to supply a doctor on each flight, there should be auto-injectors. Expecting untrained, non-medical passengers and flight attendants to fill a syringe with a vial of epinephrine in the midst of an emergency in the air is crazy. We have other options now. Use them.

Next up, education. Just like being expected to go over the emergency procedures on airplanes worldwide, airlines should be expected to train their staff to understand: what food allergies are, the severity of food allergies, signs and symptoms of food allergies, and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. They should also understand that airborne reactions are extremely rare and that should not be the follow up question when being told a passenger has food allergies. Real diagnosed food allergies are a true medical concern and should be treated as such.

How can we put food allergy families at ease? A designated row could be used as needed if passengers have food allergies or pet allergies. Like with the “Exit row” on planes, the other passengers sitting there would be consulted before taking off if they felt comfortable with the responsibility of avoiding the top allergens on the flight.

Passengers should feel safe, heard, and trusted when disclosing food allergies to an airline. I want to know what to expect when I get to the airport. Sometimes I’m asked for a doctor’s note, other times I’m not. I also don’t want to have to play down my allergies or convince others that I will be okay to fly. I booked the flight and I’ve taken every precaution to keep myself safe. I want airlines to understand that any food can be a serious allergen (not just peanuts) and that anyone who has severe food allergies should be allowed to pre-board if that accommodation is something they would like. Asking if the allergy is airborne is irrelevant because no one knows what their next reaction could look like. I’ve had bad asthmatic symptoms before on a flight. Is that an airborne reaction? I guess. However, it wasn’t an anaphylactic reaction and it resolved with my inhaler. Airlines should also stop serving bags of top eight allergens that are messy and dusty.

What now?

Since food allergies continue to become more and more prevalent, this will continue to be an even greater issue. Having no consistent airline policies across the board in the US and worldwide makes it confusing for food allergic passengers. This is why there is a need to establish consistent policies and educate airlines on food allergies. There is no reason why it has to be so arduous. It really could be quite straightforward and I would appreciate the opportunity to assist in that process. I know the travel ins and outs and fly frequently. There have been times where I have taken around fifteen flights in a month. I have lived with severe life-threatening food allergies my entire life. It is all I have ever known. Airlines need assistance in the process of educating, creating awareness and standardized protocols throughout airlines worldwide, and understanding the needs of the food allergic traveler.

If I had to choose just one change for the airlines though, consistency would be it across the board. I fly all the time and on my way to every single flight I never know what to expect. I want to know what to expect. As someone who has flown on countless airlines all over the world, I have encountered some pretty tough airline experiences. I’ve had to re-talk my way on to a number of flights on all different airlines, which is why sometimes it is easier for me to not even say anything. Airlines are the one place where I really have an internal debate over whether to advocate for myself or to not. I don’t expect the world to change for me and don’t impose that on others. That is why I advocate for education and policy changes that make sense for both passengers and airlines.

I am often asked what my favorite airlines are. At this time I don’t have favorites. I choose some airlines over others when possible, but I don’t love any airlines yet. In the U.S. I choose JetBlue. In Europe, I choose EasyJet. Both of these are budget airlines and are the two best with following their policies in my experience. Until there is some standardization though among airlines and their partners, I will not choose favorites. I want to see airlines step it up and work together and I hope I can help make that happen!

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for finally talking about >How I Manage Flying With
    Food Allergies & The Desire For Consistent Policy Changes – Miss Allergic Reactor <Liked it!

  2. Miss Allergic Reactor

    Thanks so much, Jen! I appreciate you sharing that. It is definitely challenging, especially at that age to feel confident advocating, but so important! It sounds like you are preparing her well. :)

  3. Thank you.
    I stumbled upon your instagram today. My 12 year old daughter has a peanut allergy. It’s always been on my mind how she will fair as she gets older. She can be soft-spoken. So we’ve been working with her to speak up and communicate that she cannot eat unlabeled foods and that she may need to bring other food options to school functions, etc.
    Seeing you travel with food allergies is giving me hope.
    I want to say thank you for taking time out of your day to write about your experiences and advocate. You’re a voice for the younger generation.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.