Southwest Airlines has changed its pre-boarding policy for peanut allergy. No longer are food allergy passengers being allowed to pre-board to wipe their seating area, which they do to clean up any allergen residue.
A growing number of food allergy travelers are upset and angry about the policy change. As well, an attorney is already working on a complaint to the Department of Transportation (DOT) of discrimination on the basis of disability.
William Antony, who has peanut, tree nut and other severe food allergies, is one of those concerned by the policy change. On October 16, the 22-year-old was flying home to Boston with his family following a wedding. He asked the check-in agent at the Nashville airport for a pre-boarding pass due to the peanut allergy, as he has often done. The agent turned him down, saying this was no longer allowed.
“We were stunned,” says William’s mom, Elizabeth Greabe Antony, noting her family has been flying with Southwest for years. She explained to the agent that a food allergy is considered a disability. Yet, the agent told her the airline now only allows pre-boarding for disabilities that “require wheelchairs”.
Mary Vargas takes issue with that. The Washington, D.C.-based disability rights attorney says that, according to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), pre-boarding protects people with disabilities – all disabilities. She will be filing a complaint with DOT over the airline’s policy change. Vargas views the Southwest situation “as discrimination on the basis of disability in blatant violation of the ACAA.”
Southwest spokesperson Chris Perry says his airline changed its policy for customers with a peanut or “peanut dust” allergy on September 22. (The policy did not apply to any other food allergens.) He told Allergic Living that there is still time granted to those with peanut allergy to clean seats and tray tables, but it is not during pre-boarding.
“Instead of pre-boarding, customers in these situations get extra-time boarding to board after the A group, but before the B and C groups, allotting time to wipe down their seat or other contact areas,” Perry says.
This was not William Antony’s experience, however. His mother says that, on a delayed flight, it was a frantic scramble to clean his seat area while passengers rushed aboard. Her husband’s Southwest A-list status even allowed them to board during the A group. That’s ahead of the “extra-time boarding” slot that is now designated for peanut-allergic passengers.
“I feel like the Southwest policy change is an act of alienation,” Greabe Antony says. “I hope they reverse course.”
Food Allergies: an Invisible Disability
Ashley Muff of Buffalo, New York, says her husband Corey and their 5-year-old Andrew were flying home from southern California recently. On their final connecting flight, Southwest denied pre-boarding.
When her husband got upset, security was called. Corey Muff explained to the ticket agent and security guard that Andrew is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, egg, seeds and shellfish.
“You’re not taking my son’s disability seriously,” he told them. The father and son were among the last to board the plane, leaving little time to clean the child’s seating area.
“A 5-year-old child doesn’t have a voice,” Andrew’s mom says. She is waiting to hear back from Southwest, while worrying about what to do for the next flight her husband and son must take for medical treatment in a month.
Tonya Winders, president and CEO of the Allergy & Asthma Network, say she is concerned about Southwest’s decision to no longer allow food-allergic individuals to pre-board and wipe down their space. “It is inexcusable to treat those with an invisible disability in this manner,” she says.
Food allergy and airlines advocate Lianne Mandelbaum agrees. Through her No Nut Traveler website and social media, she has been hearing a growing number of reports of food-allergic passengers being denied pre-boarding on Southwest.
“I believe the pre-board is the most critical step in keeping someone with food allergies safe,” says Mandelbaum. It will mitigate the risk at 30,000 feet.”
Pre-Boarding Abuse Alleged
Kendall Smith of Fairport, New York, who is allergic to peanuts, was recently flying out of Fort Lauderdale with her mom. The 15-year-old presented her ticket with the allergy noted on it, and told the Southwest ticket agent she would like to pre-board. He refused.
Kendall’s mom Meredith Smith stepped up to find out why and he told her of the new policy. She quotes him as saying that pre-boarding for peanut allergy had been “abused by people.”
She would like to see the evidence to support the policy change for “abuse”. “They’re not particularly kind in relaying the policy change. It’s bad customer service,” Smith says.
Mandelbaum says she has also heard from people being told the change related to people abusing pre-boarding accommodation.
“I cannot confirm any the speculation as to why this change was made, other than to say we are continually evaluating our policies and customer experience,” Southwest’s Perry says.
Legal Case for Allergy Accommodation
Vargas spearheaded a lawsuit in 2019 involving pre-boarding and nut allergies on American Airlines. In that case, a family of a girl with multiple food allergies was denied the right to pre-board her flights. The U.S. Department of Transportation found the airline to be in violation of the ACAA’s provision allowing pre-boarding for disabilities.
The DOT finding says in part:
“Section 382.93 states that carriers ‘must offer preboarding to passengers that self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated.’ Passengers with severe nut allergies are passengers with disabilities for purposes of Part 382. When a passenger with a severe allergy asks for preboarding to wipe down seating surfaces, he or she is requesting additional time ‘to be seated,’ because from the passenger’s perspective, the seating area cannot be safely accessed until it is wiped down. Accordingly, we have reason to believe that when an airline fails to allow passengers with severe nut allergies to pre-board to wipe down seating surfaces, it violates section 382.93.”
The same provision would apply to Southwest, according to Vargas of the firm Stein and Vargas. “The law is crystal clear. DOT’s interpretation is crystal clear,” she says.
Mandelbaum is compiling allergy pre-boarding experiences and concerns. She encourages Southwest passengers to continue to share their stories.
Pre-boarding with Allergy is Not a Perk
The right to pre-board is not a privilege or a “fun perk,” notes Vargas. She says this is simply to allow passengers to use their own wipes to clean the leftover food and garbage from a previous flight in the least disruptive way to other passengers.
“This is a necessary precaution. This is a parent saying, ‘Let me clean your dirty airline seat so that my child won’t die,’” Vargas says.
Dirty seating areas are a common theme in the reports from passengers who have shared their experiences with Mandelbaum. Greabe Antony said the area around their seats was littered with garbage from the previous flight. The flight attendants walked down the aisles with trash bags, asking passengers for the garbage from the seat pockets, she says.
Meredith Smith said even the first flight of the day that she and her daughter were on was dirty. Cleaning the area is imperative for Kendall’s safety, Smith says.
“All I want to do is wipe down Kendall’s seat, know that I have time to do it, and do it with dignity,” Smith says. “It’s a confined space that’s not clean.”
Allergens Brought On-Board
When Southwest discontinued serving peanuts on flights in 2018, it appeared that the airline understood that peanut dust could still be present as passengers bring peanut products and all kinds of food to eat on planes. At that time, the airline policy allowed for passengers to note their “peanut dust” allergy and pre-board.
In a recent Tweet, Southwest implies that the pre-boarding offered in the past is not necessary because the airline stopped handing out peanuts. It says in part, “Since we no longer serve peanuts onboard, those customers are welcome to board during Extra Time Boarding .…”
Southwest does not include any allergies other than peanut in its new “extra-time boarding” provision.
Mandelbaum notes that nothing has changed in terms of people being free to bring their own snacks on-board, including peanut and nut snacks. “We know we can’t control what is brought on, but we can mitigate risk by pre-boarding and cleaning,” Mandelbaum says.
“While our employees are trained on accommodating passengers with various disabilities, at this time as it relates to food allergies only customers who self-disclose a peanut and peanut-dust allergy receive extra-time boarding,” Southwest’s Perry says.
Meredith Smith started flying Southwest when they removed peanuts from service in 2018. She and Kendall were happy about the airline’s move to protect food-allergic passengers. They were excited to run into former Southwest CEO Gary Kelly in an airport in 2018. Kendall got to thank Kelly for stopping peanut service, and her mom recalls him replying: “it was the right thing to do.”
“They gained so much respect from the food allergy community when they removed peanuts, and now that respect is at risk,” Smith says.