United Airlines stands by its flight crew’s decision to ask a woman with food allergies to leave a flight. The airline contends it would have been unsafe for her to fly.
At the start of November, the woman filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT). It identifies her as “Jane Doe” for privacy. Doe’s complaint says an attendant ordered her off the June 22 flight because she revealed an allergy to tree nuts.
The complaint says this is a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). As well, it alleges that United Airlines acted “in blatant disregard” for the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights.
But in its November 16 response to DOT, United Airlines denies the traveler “was removed from and denied passage on a flight … because she disclosed her food allergies.”
Rather, United emphasizes safety and disclosure timing as reasons for removing her. United’s response says: “Ms. Doe disclosed after she had boarded, and as takeoff was imminent, that she had a severe nut allergy – severe enough to have caused a past Delta Airlines flight to make an emergency landing.”
Through her attorney Mary Vargas, Doe denies ever being involved in an emergency landing or saying this on the June 22 flight.
United’s response continues: “Particularly in light of the imminent departure, United was not able to assure Ms. Doe that she was not at risk due to her claimed allergies.”
United cites the ACAA’s Section 382.19: “… a carrier may ‘refuse to provide transportation to any passenger on the basis of safety.'” As well, that the airline “can determine that there is a disability-related safety basis for refusing to provide transportation to a passenger with a disability if [it is] able to demonstrate that the passenger poses a direct threat.”
United on Allergic Woman’s Removal
The airline’s response stresses the timing of the traveler’s allergy disclosure in the decision to remove her. It says she “failed to disclose” in advance of boarding the Alabama flight headed for Washington D.C.
But Vargas, Doe’s Washington, D.C.-based disability rights attorney, says the ACAA prohibits airlines from requiring advance notification of a disability. It states: “Airlines may not require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling.”
United refutes several of Jane Doe’s claims. Among points denied are that the attendant berated the woman about the nut allergy and her safety. It also says: “United denies that it ‘discriminated’ or ‘retaliated’ against Ms. Doe.”
Doe’s complaint states that food allergies are legally considered a disability because “food allergies substantially impair the major life activities of breathing and eating.”
The airline responded with: “United is without knowledge as to the physiology of allergy and allergic reaction, and to what extent those conditions may affect major life activities.”
“United Airlines’ legal strategy is to deny food allergies are a disability and shift responsibility, blame and discredit the victim. We stand behind the DOT complaint,” Vargas told Allergic Living. United Airlines declined to comment beyond its official response to the complaint.
To Disclose Allergy or Not?
DOT will now review the food-allergic woman’s complaint and airline’s response.
In her complaint, Doe seeks compensation for travel expenses (beyond the ticket price, which was refunded) and attorney’s fees. United denies any further compensation is owing.
She also asks for DOT to levy a fine against United “consistent with the Air Carrier Access Act”.
Food allergy and airlines advocate Lianne Mandelbaum notes that a DOT complaint is not a lawsuit seeking financial gain. Mandelbaum, who runs the nonprofit No Nut Traveler, has spoken to Doe, a frequent business traveler. “My sense is that her motivation for the complaint is to prevent others with food allergies from being treated poorly in future,” she says.
Vargas encourages other passengers with food allergies to continue to disclose their allergy when flying. If removed from a flight due to a food allergy, the attorney says to submit a consumer complaint with DOT.
After seeing the airline’s response to her complaint, Jane Doe told Allergic Living through her attorney: “I hope United Airlines will reconsider its position and become an industry leader for air travelers and their families with food allergies.”