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Airlines Are Learning to Accommodate Flyers with Food Allergies

Feb 11, 2014 11:20 am

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Not everyone is Nuts About Southwest (the name of the airline’s blog), with allergy sufferers calling on Southwest and other airlines to do more.

— Samantha Shankman

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Justin Taylor  / Flickr

Southwest serves peanuts, but works with allergy sufferers to somewhat mitigate the threat. However, some passengers believe the airline can do more. Justin Taylor / Flickr


Amy Wicker, of Naperville, has a fear of flying, but not for the usual reason.

Wicker’s 9-year-old daughter, Elyse, has severe allergies to nuts, as well as milk and eggs. Air travel is a nightmare because her daughter can suffer severe allergic reactions because of airborne nut proteins, not only from eating nuts, she said.

Some airlines serve peanuts as snacks, while others serve heated nuts to first-class passengers. And airlines have no control over passengers bringing nuts onboard.

Wicker contends that airline policies to deal with nut allergies are scattered and inconsistent, making it inconvenient and even dangerous for allergy sufferers to travel by air.

“We rarely fly. … It’s a nerve-wracking experience because you never know what’s going to happen on that flight,” she said, adding that she’s always uncertain about whether flight attendants and fellow passengers will cooperate to keep her daughter safe.

As a result, Wicker has become an advocate to persuade airlines to work better with severe-allergy sufferers. She developed the website AllergySafeTravel.com and produced the six-minute documentary film “More Than an Inconvenience,” about people, often children, who suffer from nut allergies.

After two years of waiting, she got her chance last month to make her case to the airline industry group Airlines for America in Washington, D.C., and show her film.

Her presentation was well-received, she said, but it remains to be seen whether carriers will take further steps to help.

“I think we certainly opened their eyes to the challenges of flying” with food allergies, Wicker said. “I’m sure change would come if someone actually died of anaphylaxis on a flight. None of us wants to see that.”

The goal isn’t to rid all flights of nuts, which is impractical, Wicker said. Rather, she wants flight crews to announce to the cabin that a fellow passenger has a severe allergy and make sure nobody nearby in the cabin is eating nuts.

“I didn’t ask for a ban on nuts. That’s not my intention,” she said. “We want announcements, we want buffer zones, we want clear and consistent policies, we want a little more compassionate flight crews who are willing to work with us.”

Jean Medina, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, confirmed that a working group of airline customer service representatives listened to Wicker’s recommendations.

“Airlines each have different food and catering services and policies, so it is best for passengers to contact their carriers directly about any allergy concerns,” she said. “It is important to also be aware that even if an airline does not serve peanuts, many passengers bring their own food onboard, which may contain peanuts or other nuts.”

Some carriers, such as United Airlines and American Airlines, have stopped serving packaged peanuts as snacks, though they serve heated mixed nuts in first class and will not provide nut-free zones, according to their written policies.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines have policies to work with allergy sufferers by not serving peanuts on their flights. But Wicker is asking for more because nut residue from previous flights can still be a threat.

Wicker praised Canadian carrier WestJet Airlines for its sensitivity on food allergies. “They do a great job of giving us the information we need before we fly,” Wicker said.

Food allergies, for which there is no cure, are “a growing food safety and public health concern” that affect an estimated 4 percent to 6 percent of children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s no clear reason for the rise, according to the advocacy group Food Allergy Research & Education. It cites statistics of up to 15 million Americans having food allergies, and 1 of every 13 children.

Allergic reactions to food can range from a mild response, such as an itchy mouth, to anaphylaxis, a sudden and severe reaction that may cause death. Some 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths per year result from anaphylaxis, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

It’s especially a problem for schools. The Chicago Public Schools, for example, has in recent years increased its awareness efforts about the dangers of severe allergies and stocked EpiPen shots in schools to treat such reactions.

The growing problem has also led to stricter food labeling. A 2004 federal law requires food labels to identify clearly the food source names of all ingredients that are — or contain any protein derived from –the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Label advisories that a food was produced in a facility that also uses a known allergen are voluntary.

United Airlines was sued last year by Alisa Gleason, of Sacramento, Calif., who in 2011 suffered a severe allergy attack because of peanuts a fellow passenger was eating several rows away on a flight from Florida to Chicago. The result was an emergency landing in Missouri, where Gleason spent two days in the intensive care unit, the lawsuit said. Gleason claims United was negligent because she repeatedly informed the airline of her severe peanut allergy, and the airline said her condition would be accommodated, but it was not, she said in the suit, which asks for damages of more than $500,000.

Wicker said she has scheduled follow-up calls this week with a couple of U.S. airlines to continue discussing handling food allergies on flights.

A former TV news producer and reporter, Wicker produced the film because of the medium’s powerful storytelling ability and to feature other families besides her own that deal with food-allergy risks. She said she’s in talks with the Chicago Department of Aviation to show the video on monitors at O’Hare International and Midway airports.

Ultimately, she hopes Airlines for America issues recommendations for carriers regarding food allergies.

“It doesn’t have to be done adversarially,” she said. “I think there are approaches and creative ways we can work together to mitigate the risk of a reaction happening.”

Failing that, “We’ll have to look at doing something legislatively,” she said.

(c)2014 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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