Nuts on Planes: from Jack Fowler’s Scare to Flying with Snickers

By:
in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: June 23, 2024

The topic of nuts on planes went viral recently on social media, after Jack Fowler shared the story of his severe reaction in the skies. The Love Island TV star says an Emirates airline crew assured him a meal he was ordering contained no nuts. In fact, it contained cashew, to which he’s highly allergic.

And as most of the world knows by now, Fowler suffered an anaphylactic reaction, after just one bite of his meal. The allergic celebrity required epinephrine, oxygen and was rushed to the hospital once on the ground.

Jack Fowler administers epinephrine.
Jack Fowler via Instagram Jack Fowler administers epinephrine on Dubai flight.

Fowler has been on British TV, imploring airlines to take food allergies, especially nut allergies, seriously. He says he’s lucky he didn’t die.

There’s an irony in the timing of Fowler’s experience and call for allergy accommodations. I’m seeing that Mars Inc.’s Snickers recently launched a big campaign called “The Hungry Skies,” which riffs on some of the unpleasant moments of modern flying. The solution to the chaos, according to the campaign? Bringing aboard a peanut-filled Snickers chocolate bar. Mars’s ad agency is positioning the bar as “an essential travel snack.”

Fowler is certainly right that food allergy accommodations aren’t adequate. They’re not uniform across airlines. But there have been examples of change. In recent years, some U.S. (notably Southwest) and U.K. airlines have stopped serving peanuts to protect peanut-allergic passengers. British Airways is one of a few airlines that will also make an announcement asking passengers to refrain from eating peanut and nut products.

For those traveling with food allergies, the reality is that no airline “guarantees” an allergen-free environment. Airlines say they especially can’t control what passengers bring on board. But a peanut-based chocolate bar actively encouraging nutty snacking at 35,000 feet? That ratchets up the bar on allergy concerns – and risks.

‘Tinderbox’ of Allergy Risk

Shortly after we published this article, the food allergy nonprofit FARE weighed in, strongly objecting to the new Snickers campaign. “Mars is igniting a tinderbox of potential dangers for food allergy patients with its new Snickers bar campaign,” said FARE CEO Sung Poblete, PhD.

She says that “an airplane already represents a heightened risk for food allergy patients,” since in-flight there is no access to emergency care and trained medical staff. In her statement, Poblete also notes a point that I often raise – flight attendants are not even trained to recognize severe food allergy reactions.

“FARE urges Mars to abandon this campaign, so that you don’t further endanger the lives of the more than 33 million people in the U.S. with the disease of food allergy,” Poblete said. [Ed’s Note: Want to send a comment to Mars? See link at end.]

Snickers travelers' campaign
Youtube.com/@snickersbrand “Hungry Skies” campaign promotes Snickers as plane snack.

As a global advocate for food allergy and airline travel, I second this sentiment. But how did we arrive at this “nutty culture” in the skies in the first place?

The history traces back to a Southwest marketing campaign launched in the early 1970s. The airline introduced what were called “peanut fares” – the concept was “flights so cheap they cost peanuts.” In keeping with the budget-conscious theme, they only served small bags of peanuts. In a time of few food allergies, this was a hit.

Fast forward to 2024, and most airlines no longer hand out peanuts due to allergy concerns. However, many do offer tree nuts (sometimes with peanuts mixed in) as premium snacks. This means you’ll often encounter more nuts near you at 35,000 feet than on the ground. The fruits of Southwest’s old campaign remain, often making flying challenging for those with nut and peanut allergies.

Snickers’ De-Stress Campaign

With “The Hungry Skies” approach, the Snickers brand seeks to build on its catchy “You’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, which starred the late Betty White and other celebrities. Mars’s new campaign, led by ad agency BBDO New York, pokes fun at the annoyances of modern air travel.

The campaign’s initial commercial depicts in-flight scenarios such as the passenger who presses the call button nonstop, another who has an emotional support snake and two women undertaking a full in-flight spa treatment. Passengers on the flight lose patience – until Snickers bars are handed out. Like magic, quiet ensues.

Mars says the plan for the new Snickers campaign is to target U.S. and Australia first, and then expand to 30 countries worldwide. On Youtube they say The Hungry Skies takes “the out-of-sorts moments out of flying by reminding you to never fly without a Snickers.” 

Snickers Campaign: Influence on Fliers

My overarching concern is that the Snickers campaign, like Southwest’s before it, could influence the behavior of millions of travelers. The messaging will be repeated often – to snack in the air, a Snickers bar is the perfect choice.

Many people think: if you’re allergic, just don’t eat food that contains your allergen. That’s certainly a good start. But airline exposures can be more nuanced. For example, Mayo Clinic research shows airline trays have a surprising amount of peanut protein. On flights, there are smears, spills and nut dust that settled from the last person’s trail mix. Will it set off anaphylaxis? That depends on the person, but the risk is real.

In the wake of Fowler’s frightening in-flight reaction and call for more accommodation, I’d like to hope for improvement and buy-in. But now all I can imagine is a Snickers wrapper in every other seatback pocket and peanutty tray smears.

At my Nonuttraveler.com website, I collect testimonials, and they often show challenges that passengers with food allergies face when flying. Now, there are data that capture such experiences scientifically.

Almost 5,000 patients and caregivers took part in a global survey on food allergies and air travel, conducted by Northwestern University’s Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR). The survey’s results revealed that allergic reactions in the air were most frequently to peanut and tree nut exposures.

Plus, as Fowler’s story of one cashew-laden bite shows, some people with food allergies are highly reactive. His story is not that rare, at Allergic Living we continue to report on instances of close calls with anaphylaxis in the air.

Given the explosion of food allergies, the new Snickers campaign comes off as insensitive and tone deaf to the times at best. But worse, it could even be dangerous for those traveling with peanut allergies.

Food Allergy Backlash in Skies

Through my reporting for Allergic Living and my advocacy, I know how few airline staff receive education on the seriousness of anaphylaxis. Data from CFAAR’s global survey indicated that 36 percent of food allergy travelers surveyed reported airline staff treating them in an unprofessional or insensitive manner because of food allergy. Almost 12 percent were asked to leave a flight or denied boarding.

At Allergic Living, we’ve covered too many cases of food allergy reactions and poor treatment because of allergy requests in the skies. In the U.K., Jack Fowler’s experience came soon after a BBC announcer and her family were thrown off a flight to Turkey. They had disclosed their daughter’s peanut allergy and asked for an announcement asking others to not consume peanuts.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation’s Nadim Ednan-Laperouse called that treatment “shocking and unacceptable.” He noted that “food allergies are an illness, not a lifestyle choice.” The Ednan-Laperouses know all too well the risks of allergic reactions in the skies. Their daughter Natasha, 15, died from food-induced anaphylaxis during a flight to France.

I personally know the uphill battle to be taken seriously by flight crews and other passengers. I once encountered ire when an announcement was made for my son on a flight to Florida. A man behind us asked the flight crew: “Why does this whole plane have to ‘suffer’ because one a-hole kid has a peanut allergy?” It was a two-hour flight.

Snickers Campaign: Time for a Rethink?

Some on social media have shared instances of passengers booing when a P.A. announcement is made for a passenger with a nut allergy. Some comment that people with food allergies “should not expect to fly.” By encouraging Snickers as the in-flight snack of choice, will these kinds of situations only grow?

U.S. research shows emergency treatment of severe food allergy reactions climbed an astonishing 377 percent in a decade. Food allergies are a growing global epidemic, and I would have hoped this was something to be aware of in a campaign to target airline travelers.

Food allergies are mostly an invisible condition unless you are in the throes of an allergic reaction. How I wish the global food allergy community could hire an ad agency like BBDO to help us flip the switch from invisible to visible. The testimonials I have collected and discourse on social media reveal that, without seeing anaphylaxis, many people doubt it actually exists. And so comes the anger when we pre-board or ask for that announcement.

I am grateful to Jack Fowler for sharing his frightening in-flight experience, and shedding light on this mostly unseen condition. The Snickers campaign, in contrast, will likely give fuel to those who refuse to believe that peanut allergies are serious. And, if the campaign is successful, peanut residue aboard flights will certainly increase.

I have seen my own son gasping for life during an anaphylactic reaction to trace amounts of peanuts. It is very real and frightening. If your best advertising idea involves the possibility of risking lives – you should consider going back to the drawing board.

Article updated with FARE statement on June 24, 2024.

What can you do?

Send a comment to Mars here about the impact for those flying with peanut/nut allergies.

Lianne Mandelbaum is Allergic Living’s airlines correspondent, and the founder of NoNutTraveler.com.
With files from Gwen Smith.

Related Reading:
The Trouble with Airline Meals and Food Allergies
Essential Food Allergy Flying Tips
DOT Rules in Favor of Food Allergy Pre-Boarding Rights