A Virginia mother has filed a complaint of discrimination with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) after American Airlines refused to allow pre-boarding so she could wipe down the seating area for her son with a severe food allergy.
Alicia White contends in the complaint that her family “was excluded from travel and remains excluded from travel” on AA over her 8-year-old son’s medical pre-boarding needs.
In July 2017, White purchased tickets for an October trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. In late August, she contacted AA about her son’s allergy and the need to pre-board. Once it was clear that the airline would not permit this on the flight from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, White says she had no choice but to buy new tickets on an alternate airline. That airline allowed the pre-boarding for the family and the wipe-down.
“I was completely shocked that pre-boarding was refused because I know that a life-threatening food allergy is considered a disability and believed we would be accommodated,” White told Allergic Living. “What we were asking for was simply extra time to board and ensure our son’s safety.”
Her complaint requests that the DOT “investigate and take immediate steps to require that American Airlines comply with its obligation to permit pre-boarding for individuals with disabilities, and to cease its discriminatory policies and practices against individuals with food allergies.” She also seeks to be reimbursed for the $631 she paid for the Orlando tickets.
American Airlines has a written “nut allergy” policy on its website that specifically denies pre-boarding to those with nut or peanut allergies. In early 2017, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the largest food allergy not-for-profit organization, took a stand in favor of pre-boarding for its community. It filed a complaint with DOT, calling American Airlines’ policy to refuse pre-boarding to those with food allergies both discriminatory and a violation of 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.”
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 has contended this includes food-allergic individuals since “a disability is defined as a substantial impairment to a major life activity (such as breathing or eating).”
When asked about White’s specific complaint, the airline’s representative told Allergic Living that “allowing passengers with a nut allergy to pre-board can create a false sense of security and doesn’t eliminate risk. We strongly encourage customers to take all necessary precautions and speak to a medical professional before they travel …. Our policy is designed to ensure our customers don’t think we can provide something we can’t – a nut-free environment onboard our planes.”
Of her family’s Orlando trip, White says she tried several times to get a refund, but American Airlines’ customer representatives refused that, and only offered to issue vouchers. When White said her family could not use the vouchers, as her son could not travel safely without pre-boarding to fully wipe the seating area to ensure it was free of peanut, his severe allergen, the woman was told she could donate the vouchers to charity.
White’s complaint was filed by Stein & Vargas, a law firm that specializes in disability rights. The complaint notes the Access Act “provides that no carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability, by reason of such disability, in the provision of air transportation.”
The mother says she chose to pursue the DOT complaint because “there are millions of Americans with life-threatening allergies who are affected by AA’s unfair and discriminatory policy. I believe I have the responsibility of advocating for my son and ensuring he is not excluded from air travel.”
See also: As Food Allergy Pre-Boarding Refusals Climb, FARE Renews Call for DOT Action