DOT Airline Complaint: Teen ‘Humiliated’ over Nut Allergy Needs

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: July 15, 2023
DOT Airline Complaint: Teen 'Humiliated' over Nut Allergy Needs
Photo: Getty

A California family has launched a U.S. Department of Transportation complaint against Delta Air Lines over the denial of a teen’s nut allergy accommodation. 

Deena Gianulis Castro and her mother Deborah Gianulis filed the DOT complaint on July 11, 2023 on behalf of Deena’s 14-year-old son. The teen, referred to as K.C. in the filing, has a severe nut allergy. 

The complaint contends the airline violated K.C.’s disability rights when one crew member chose to serve almonds when other Delta staff had agreed they wouldn’t be served. 

They say various Delta booking agents, gate agents and crew agreed to accommodate the mother’s request that almonds not be served on flights due to K.C.’s allergy. This accommodation was made on a flight in October 2022 from San Diego to New York City. Several of their family members were on that flight, heading to a wedding. 

Gianulis Castro says that on October 17, she and K.C. and his sister went to the airport for their return flight to San Diego. The complaint says that again, a Delta gate agent and a flight attendant agreed that almonds would not be served. 

However, the mother says that as the airplane was about to pull away from the gate, another flight attendant approached. She told Gianulis Castro and her son that almonds would in fact be offered as a snack. According to the DOT complaint, the attendant said this was because in personal research, she’d learned that tree nuts “cannot cause airborne reactions.” 

The family says this is contrary to the advice of K.C.’s medical specialist, and that he has previously experienced breathing difficulty related to nuts on a flight. The complaint says the flight attendant told them “if you are uncomfortable, you should get off the plane.” Gianulis Castro and her kids did exactly that. 

Airline’s Response to Complaint

The airline complaint says, “K.C. was humiliated to have to deplane and to have his medical diagnosis publicly questioned.” Gianulis Castro and her daughter were in tears. As well, the family faced additional hotel, transportation charges and flight change fees.

Allergic Living asked Delta about the family’s complaint. “Delta is evaluating this document and will respond consistent with what is required by DOT procedures,” a media spokesperson replied. 

He also pointed to the food allergy provisions and guidance on, including using their accessibility request form or contacting Delta’s reservations department. 

The airline’s policy is that it will stop service of peanut products with notice of a peanut allergy, but includes a disclaimer. “Though we always aim to work with you to make your flight safe and comfortable, we cannot guarantee a peanut- or nut-free flight or prohibit other customers from carrying nut products aboard,” it says. For peanut and other food allergies, Delta says, “it can allow you to board early to clean your seat area.” 

Mary Vargas, the D.C.-based disability rights attorney, represents K.C. and his family. She tells Allergic Living that “airlines’ inconsistency” on accommodations is a big barrier to passengers with food allergies. “Airlines seem to view the provision of accommodations that are necessary for food-allergic travelers as optional and arbitrarily deny those accommodations,” she said. 

“Where an airline leaves accommodation to the whim of a flight crew as a plane is about to back away from the gate, they strip food-allergic passengers of the ability to make choices about safe travel,” Vargas said. 

DOT to Weigh Complaint

The term “disability” has been defined to include any person with a physical or mental condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities”. (With food allergy and anaphylaxis risk, affected life activities would be breathing and eating.) The airline complaint contends that K.C.’s treatment was a violation of his disability rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights

In this complaint, Vargas says the denial of accommodations had consequences. The two children missed school, hotel accommodation had to be found and the family was left “without safe transport home despite having purchased tickets,” she said.

The family needed to get back to California and did rebook with Delta for October 19, 2022, for a fee of $110 per ticket. They again requested that no nuts be served. The complaint says that, on this flight, the accommodation for K.C. was granted. 

In addition to reimbursement of their costs, the family is asking DOT to levy a fine “for discrimination against travelers with food allergies.” Such a fine has not happened to date. However, Vargas contends “there must be tangible consequences to the airlines to ensure future action in compliance with law.”

Related Reading: 
My Airline Complaint Over Nut Allergy: Media Attention to Hate Mail
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DOT Finds in Favor of Food Allergy Pre-boarding Rights