When a child has food allergies, traveling by air can be nerve-racking, yet it’s often the only way for our children to visit grandparents, go on family vacations, and see the world. With a little work, even families with allergies can find friendly skies.
Planning the Trip
• Talk to your child’s allergist about any special precautions you may need to take. Make sure prescriptions are up-to-date and ask for a letter stating that you need to carry certain medications and special foods when you travel.
• Review the online allergy policies of the airlines that fly to your destination. For example, if you’re dealing with peanut or nut allergies, look for an airline that does not serve them. Passengers will still carry on these snacks but your child’s likelihood of exposure will be reduced.
• Call potential airlines to clarify policies. For example, an airline might note that they serve tree nuts in first class, but not mention that they actually warm up loose mixed nuts in the kitchen area. Some airlines that serve peanuts, like Southwest Airlines, are reliable about serving an alternative (peanut- and nut-free) snacks to all passengers upon request.
• Before you purchase the tickets, be sure you’re clear on exactly what the airline is willing to do, and keep notes on conversations. Some airlines will provide a “buffer zone” where they will ask passengers around you not to eat the allergenic food. Many will let you pre-board to wipe down seats (in case of food residue). Most airlines today will not make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating nuts, peanuts or other allergens.
Leaving requests for accommodations to discussions with the gate agent or crew can lead to problems. (If you do encounter trouble at the gate, ask to speak with the airline’s customer relations officer (CRO). Write down his or her name, and calmly explain your issue.)
• Whenever possible, book the first flight of the day or at least an early flight, as airplanes receive a thorough cleaning at the end of the day. Try to book a direct flight so that you’re not dealing with multiple planes and crews.
Bring on Board
• Pack your child’s medications (including at least two epinephrine auto-injectors) in their original packaging, along with a signed emergency plan and the letter from your physician. Never pack your child’s medication in the luggage that you plan to check. Keep it with you at all times, and do not store it in the overhead bin.
• Pack enough food for twice as long as your flight, as flights can be held on runways for hours. Never eat the airline food. This is not a time to take chances.
• Remember that yogurts, applesauce and puddings are considered liquids by the Transportation Security Administration. If you pack a cooler, use hard plastic freezer packs as squishy bags may be confiscated.
• Pack plenty of wet wipes, Kleenex, napkins, plastic utensils and small paper plates. Consider a blanket or sheet to cover the seat.
• When you get to the gate, inform the agent that you are traveling with a child with food allergies and that you would like to pre-board.
• On the plane, ask your child to sit down first. Wipe down the armrests, the window shade, the buttons for the lights and, most importantly, the seat tray. Wipe your hands and have your child wipe his. Before he eats, spread a napkin over your child’s tray table and place food or snacks on the paper plates.
• In the event of an allergic reaction, first treat the child and then immediately notify the flight attendant. This is important as even minor reactions have the potential to escalate quickly. Medical professionals are often on board and can assist in the event of an emergency.
• Some airlines go out of their way to accommodate our special needs: take the time to let them know with a quick e-mail thanking them for the excellent customer service.
• If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination because of a food allergy or if you or your child experienced an allergic reaction while inflight, you can and should file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. “Allergy” is one of 13 disability categories they track, and it’s important that they know how often these issues arise. Also always let the airline know.
Wishing you a safe trip – bon voyage!
Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach specializing in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder of the online support group allergymoms.com, serving thousands worldwide.
See also: Comparing Airlines Chart