Flying Into Stormy Skies with Food Allergies

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: June 12, 2013

It’s interesting that while sectors of the food industry raise doubts about the seriousness of allergy risks, Allergic Living actually sees an increase in allergic passengers being questioned about whether they are “fit to fly” – the airline term for being healthy enough for air travel.

In the Greenbergers case, “it was like Lily was the perpetrator of the problem,” says her mother Emily. (It should be noted that Martelle says American’s view is that “there are discrepancies between what the Greenbergers are now saying and what they said during the event.”)

Anne Thompson, co-founder of Illinois’ MOCHA support group, relates that her son Andrew almost lost his seat due to his peanut and nut allergies in 2011. The high school student, an elite rower, was heading to a national regatta. Andrew checked in with United at O’Hare International, just to confirm that no peanuts would be served (that is United’s policy). The agent was concerned, since the airline “couldn’t guarantee” there would be no nuts in the cabin. The teen phoned his mother in a panic – the agent might not let him board. He was allowed on – but by no means was it a given.

Also boarding at O’Hare in the fall of 2011 was Amy Wicker and her family. Wicker told United flight attendants on the Phoenix-bound flight that her daughter has severe tree nut and peanut allergies. She’d done this in past and found crews willing to change snacks or make an announcement that there was a child with nut allergies on board. This time, Wicker was told that warmed nuts were being served in first class, with cashews being baked in the front and almonds in the back.

When she asked if an alternative could be served, the reply was: “Ma’am, if you don’t feel comfortable flying, you’re welcome to get off the plane.” Appalled that a snack seemed to trump a child’s health, Wicker gave her daughter a pre-emptive dose of Benadryl for a tense, three-hour flight.

Air Canada instituted a policy in late 2010 in which a passenger can request a “buffer zone” of three nut-free rows, but to qualify for it, you need a doctor to complete a medical form. There have been incidences of the airline’s staff telling allergic passengers that they can’t board without such clearance – a misinterpretation. The new policy says you need the medical form if you want the allergy buffer zone, but not if you simply wish to take your seat.

All the gut-wrenching over whether people with allergies will be “allowed” to fly, makes Gina Clowes’ blood boil. After taking a flight where nuts were being heated, Clowes, the founder of the website and a columnist for this magazine, asked the family allergist whether that environment was safe for her son, who’s highly allergic. While Greenhawt’s view is that such warming poses little risk for airborne reactions, Clowes’ allergist counseled not to chance it in her son’s case.

As the family had already booked flights with American out of Pittsburgh, she phoned the airline’s disability desk to see if it was possible to forego heating the nuts. At first she was told to just ask at the gate. When Clowes pressed for a firmer answer, “he said, ‘I don’t know if your son can fly, I’m going to require a letter from your doctor that says he’s safe to fly.’

I said: ‘I’m going to require you to put that in writing.’” Clowes blogged about the incident, generating 10,000 views. The airline got in touch with a solution: the family was put on an early flight where nuts wouldn’t be served.

Wicker’s experience got her fired up about the rights of allergic travelers. The former TV reporter has now launched and has begun speaking to airline executives about the need for accommodations. She and Thompson are both of the view that some airlines simply may not be informed enough about the issues that passengers with serious allergies come up against with the nut-snack culture in our skies. American, for instance, moves about 250,000 passengers every day. With that kind of traffic, it’s hard for food allergies to get on the radar.

“There is such an education opportunity with the airline industry,” says Thompson. Wicker asks: “Has anyone sat down with the airlines to say, ‘this is a big and growing issue’? A complete ban on nuts isn’t necessary, but what can we do to work together? I think the solution is there.” The big airlines need to hear reasoned arguments and more of the demand for change.

“We don’t always advocate for this health condition in a very serious way,” says Clowes. Her blog post generated hundreds of messages about reactions or bad treatment, “but people are not reporting incidents. Write to the airline; file your complaint with DOT online. The form takes five minutes.”

Even the Greenbergers, who salvaged their vacation by driving to Disney World, are hopeful about the outlook for more accommodations in the air. “The generation of people with food allergies is growing up and they’re going to be the business people of the future,” says Brett Greenberger. “Those are the customers who matter to the airlines.”

Had a good or bad experience flying with food allergies? Tell us about it at

See Also:
• 8 Factors that May Reduce Allergy Risks in the Air
‚Ä¢ Allergic Living’s Comparison Chart of Airlines and Allergy/Gluten Policies