Early in 2017, the national advocacy organization FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) launched a formal complaint against American Airlines over its refusal to allow pre-boarding to passengers with food allergies. The intent is that they may wipe their seating areas to reduce the risk of allergen exposures.
Then on Nov. 16, 2017, following up on that submission to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), FARE added to that complaint, with a letter that lists the experiences of 31 travelers with food allergies. These passengers had sought to pre-board with American Airlines (AA).
Policy Called Violation
FARE says each of these passengers was denied that accommodation – despite the fact that several were “traveling with a letter from their allergist documenting the medical need to pre-board.”
In its DOT complaint (filed Feb. 15, 2017), FARE contended that AA’s written online policy, which explicitly refuses pre-boarding to those with food allergies, was both discriminatory and a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act. In the new letter to the Department of Transportation, FARE CEO Dr. James Baker writes of FARE’s mission and its membership being harmed because of AA’s “ongoing blatant refusal to comply with its legal obligations under the Air Carrier Access Act.”
American Airlines has responded to FARE’s complaint by admitting that it does not offer pre-boarding to those with food allergies for wiping down seats and tray tables, and “denies the implication that it is required by law to do so.”
Pre-boarding Complaints to DOT
These are among the experiences of food allergy travelers that FARE relates in its letter:
- A 16-year-old from Massachusetts was refused pre-boarding in order to wipe seats on multiple legs of a journey, despite an allergist’s letter saying this was necessary.
- A parent asked about pre-boarding for her child with allergies to peanuts, dairy, nuts, egg and wheat. A gate agent refused this, saying: “No, the plane is already clean.”
- A couple relates that they asked to wipe seats down on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. They were told by an AA agent they “would be flying at our own risk. We were also told the pilot might not allow us on the plane.”
- The relative of a Pennsylvania passenger says their party was denied pre-boarding to accommodate a child severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, milk and seafood.
The 31 specific experiences “represent only a fraction of the individuals with life-threatening food allergies who are being denied access as the result of American Airlines’ discriminatory policies and practices on a daily basis,” wrote Baker in FARE’s letter of additional information.
The Access Act says that passengers with disabilities must be allowed to pre-board if they request additional time to board or be seated. FARE’s complaint contends that this includes food-allergic individuals since “a disability is defined as a substantial impairment to a major life activity (such as breathing or eating).”
AA Denies Need
But in its response, AA denies “the allegation that only by pre-boarding the aircraft can an allergic individual wipe down surfaces to prevent food allergen contact.” Nor does the airline accept that pre-boarding would prevent allergen exposure, and it suggests pre-boarding of food-allergic individuals is not a common practice among air carriers.
Lawyer Mary Vargas of Stein and Vargas, who is representing FARE, disagrees. “The law is clear – airlines must allow pre-boarding for individuals with food allergies who need to wipe down and secure their seating area.” Vargas says it is extremely difficult to do this as other passengers rush to their seats during general boarding.
Families and individuals with food allergies often wish to wipe down a seating area – from the seat cushions to tray tables, armrests and window shades – to prevent exposure to allergen residue from previous passengers’ snacks.
As for the lasting qualities of residue, a Mayo Clinic team released research in 2016 on peanut protein settling on various surfaces, including airplane trays. Tests showed the highest levels of peanut protein on tray tables on flights where peanuts were served. (It was higher in fact than the amount of peanut dust on the tabletops at restaurants where peanuts are shelled at the table.) Even on a flight where peanuts were not served, the Mayo team found that peanut protein was still easily measured.