Airline Backs Attendant’s Right to Deny Allergy Accommodations

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: November 2, 2023
Photo: Getty

Delta Air Lines strongly disputes a California family’s complaint of discrimination for denying a teen’s requested nut allergy accommodation. The airline says its flight attendant was simply following policy when she turned down the family’s request not to serve almonds on a flight.

The airline and the family are miles apart on this formal complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Deena Gianulis Castro and her mother Deborah Gianulis filed the complaint in July 2023, on behalf of Deena’s 14-year-old son, who is severely allergic to tree nuts. 

The family says that, starting with booking, they’d repeatedly requested that Delta not serve nuts on the family’s 2022 flights between San Diego and New York City. They also asked for an announcement to other passengers about the allergy.

In their DOT complaint, the family contends they were told during booking that the nut accommodations would be made. And they were provided on the outbound flight to New York. Delta acknowledges the request, but denies any such confirmation at booking.

On the return flight, the women say that both the gate agent for the flight to San Diego and another flight attendant agreed that nuts would not be served. Delta disputes these assurances, and its DOT reply offers insight into who has authority over accommodations.

“Delta gate agents are not authorized to agree to provide in-flight accommodations. Rather, Delta gate agents share any requests with flight attendants,” say the airline’s lawyers.

Delta says the flight attendant who came to the family’s row to discuss accommodations had the authority to make the decision. The attendant informed the family of the teen (known as K.C. in the complaint) about its policy. Delta says she offered a buffer zone, but stressed that “Delta could not provide a guaranteed nut-free or allergen-free flight.”

Delta: Attendant’s Role in Allergy Requests

In past cases, DOT has found that food allergies can be a disability under the federal Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). 

The family’s attorney, Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas LLP, writes in a response that Delta’s position is that “only its flight attendants are authorized to grant or deny requests for accommodation” at issue. “In other words,” she says, “Delta proposes that passengers requesting on-board accommodations for food allergies must purchase tickets and actually board a plane before they can know whether their accommodations will be provided.” 

Vargas says that stance unjustly treats food-allergic passengers differently than other air travelers. Under the ACAA, she says that “separate treatment” for those with a recognized disability is considered discriminatory. 

“Denying travelers the certainty of knowing whether they will be able to travel on a flight for which they have purchased tickets makes travel impossible,” she told Allergic Living. 

Passengers should be able to depend on traveling on the flights for which they’ve purchased tickets, “not when a flight attendant decides to comply with an airlines’ federal obligations,” she says. 

The airline’s lawyers, however, take the view: “Delta has a reasonable policy in place, and the complainants were unhappy with the policy.”

They say the policy on tree nut allergies “is to allow the passenger to preboard the flight to wipe down the seat and area …. Additionally, Delta personnel will create a buffer zone in the seat row and section in which the passenger is sitting.” 

Delta Rejects Allergy Claims 

K.C. and family members left the plane on Oct. 17, 2022, when it was clear that almonds would be served on the flight. The family’s complaint says K.C. felt humiliated and his mother and sister were in tears. Delta’s lawyers say they don’t have information to comment on these passengers’ feelings. 

The need to find another flight home left the family with additional costs for hotel, transportation and flight change fees. But the airline denies the family is entitled to compensation – since they chose to leave.

“This is a case about a person with a food allergy whose family voluntarily chose not to travel because Delta cannot and does not guarantee an allergen-free flight,” the airline’s complaint answer states. Delta did not respond to requests for comment.

Vargas says the family was not seeking “a guarantee,” but rather asked for nuts not to be served and a PA announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating nuts. Delta does say in its response that it will make such announcements. 

“It is illogical that Delta would alert passengers to the presence of someone with a nut allergy and ask passengers to refrain from consuming nuts and then serve almonds to those same customers,” says the family’s reply.

Allergy Rights vs. Undue Burden?

Delta contends in its response to the DOT complaint that the family’s request would require across-the-board policy changes. It says changes to airline practices can’t be addressed in a complaint, but instead requires petitioning for a federal rulemaking change.

In its response, Delta notes that the Air Carrier Access Act does not require airlines to make modifications to service that would “cause an undue burden or a fundamental alteration in service.”

But Vargas says the Gianulis Castro family’s requests did not create “undue burden”. The family had asked to wipe down K.C’s seating area, alert other passengers of the nut allergy with an announcement, and not serve almonds.

The family reply stresses that the flight crew on their flight heading to New York agreed to the accommodations and did not serve almonds. Then the Delta flight they eventually took home to San Diego also granted their accommodations.

Airline Disputes Family’s Role 

At issue in the DOT complaint are K.C.’s disability rights under the Air Carrier Access Act and the Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights

Delta also contends in its response that Deena Gianulis Castro and her mother Deborah Gianulis “are not proper parties” and “lack standing to pursue this claim.” 

But Vargas says that argument would strip minors with disabilities of their rights under the Air Carrier Access Act. Since K.C. is a minor, his mother and grandmother made and paid for the flight arrangements. The ability to make a claim under the ACAA includes “those who experience discrimination based on their association with someone with a disability,” she says.

The family is seeking reimbursement of their costs, along with DOT sanctions “for discrimination against travelers with food allergies.” Vargas is hoping for a quick, firm response from DOT. Delta, meanwhile, seeks dismissal of the complaint.

Related Reading:
DOT Airline Complaint: Teen ‘Humiliated’ Over Nut Allergy Needs
Air Travel with Food Allergy Survey: From Anxiety to Crew Issues
DOT Finds in Favor of Food Allergy Pre-boarding Rights