Mar 16 2012
We learned that my son is allergic to peanuts when he was three years old due to skin testing and bloodwork in investigating another condition. In the past six years, we’ve become adept at navigating restaurant menus and working with our school, friends, and family to ensure a safe environment for him. We’ve traveled far and wide, but always in a car where we could control the food that’s brought in.
Our recent trip to California created a new page in our book of dealing with food allergies: flying with a peanut allergy. Our experience flying on Delta follows; I welcome any thoughts about your own food allergy airline experiences, or tips for traveling families, in the comments.
My pre-trip concerns were two-fold: how to keep our son safe while on the flight, and how to handle epi-pens at the security gate.
About a month before our trip, I called Delta’s main information number and spoke to an agent about the peanut allergy. She said that Delta does not provide peanut-free flights, but recommended sitting in either the first three or last three rows of the cabin. We already had seats at the back of the plane, so this was not difficult. Another option provided was to talk to the gate agent one hour prior to the flight and ask to be assigned (him plus one adult) to the first economy row, which is reserved until that point in time for people with service animals or other special needs. We decided to stay with our seat assignments at the back of the plane, especially since our family of six was already taking up two rows on one side, which would create a bit of a natural buffer zone.
The phone agent also noted the peanut allergy on our son’s reservation.
Regarding the epi-pens, I checked the airline and TSA websites to see how to handle medications and learned that there should be no problem with them.
We did nothing special with the epi-pens we had in our carry-on luggage and no questions were asked at security regarding them.
Flight 1: At the Gate
We had arrived quite early for the flight, and as soon as the gate agent arrived, I talked to her about the peanut allergy. She was very kind, reiterating that there were no peanut-free flights offered on Delta, but that they would not offer peanuts in the three rows ahead of or behind my son. I asked if I needed to talk to the flight attendants, and she said no, that she would inform them.
Flight 1: On the Plane
We had brought along wipes with which to clean the trays and surfaces in my son’s row, in case there should be any peanut residue there from an earlier flight. Though we normally do not do this in everyday situations, the idea of having a reaction while in the air with no ambulance or hospital readily available caused us to take more precautions than usual.
When the drinks and snacks were served, the flight attendants worked from front to back. When they reached the row my son was in, they offered him peanuts. My husband quietly reminded them that there was a peanut allergy in the row, and they hastily backed up and took back the peanuts they’d just given to passengers in the row ahead. There ended up being just a two-row buffer instead of the three rows there were supposed to be. I give the confiscated-peanut passengers credit for not complaining, but I was disappointed that the flight attendants had forgotten the protocol and offered peanuts to them in the first place.
Flight 2: At the Gate
This time, we did not arrive at the gate until about 20 minutes prior to boarding. I gave the same spiel to the agent: “My son has a peanut allergy and the reservation agent said I should let you know.” He annoyed with me, and said he’d have to put us in the last row. I mentioned that we were already near the back of the plane, but he said the very back was what he was supposed to do, and now the plane was nearly full and he’d have to move people around. After pausing a bit, he asked how severe the allergy was. “Not airborne or contact-sensitive as far as we know,” I replied. “So just ingestion?” “Yes,” I replied. He then decided that where we were sitting was good enough and that they’d have to do a buffer zone of “4 rows or something,” and that he’d have to notify the flight attendants RIGHT NOW. He walked immediately down the jetway with this information.
Flight 2: On the Plane
When we boarded, we noticed two small pieces of paper taped to the seatbacks of the third row ahead of our son’s row, marked simply with “ø.” Once everyone in those rows had boarded, the flight attendant explained that there was a customer with a peanut allergy in this area, and that peanuts would not be served beyond that point. She also asked that any passengers who had brought a peanut snack not eat it during the flight, and that if a peanut snack was the only thing they had brought to eat, she would talk with them about trading it for something else from her cart. As during the first flight, I did not see or hear anyone complain about this.
As had been promised, the flight attendants discontinued offering peanuts when they got to the marked row. I did notice that there was still trail mix available for sale, but I did not see if anyone attempted to order it during the flight.
- I’m surprised that the peanut allergy was not flagged in the gate agent’s information. Sometimes it is not possible to arrive early enough for seat reassignment, especially if catching a connecting flight. Similarly, sometimes seat assignments are not available until arriving at the gate, so the allergic passenger could be assigned to a row other than that suggested for people with allergies on Delta. Delta’s computer system should be able to flag this so the gate attendant knows before we arrive that there’s an allergy on board.
- The demeanor of the gate agent isn’t what keeps the allergic passenger safe. The flight attendants are the key piece of the puzzle. Though Flight 1′s gate agent was much friendlier, the flight attendants on the plane were not very attendant. The gate agent for Flight 2 was more brusque, but the flight attendants on board were much better at communicating with the passengers and following the protocols we’d been told they would use.
- The allergic passenger was kept anonymous throughout the process. We were not in any way singled out as being the ones with a food allergy in our row. Any passengers who might be disgruntled did not know if the allergic passenger was right next to them or a few rows away.
- Our fellow passengers were kind and understanding. No one on either flight was visibly hostile about the absence of peanuts in their row.
- The cookies and pretzels offered as snacks besides peanuts were a may-contain, so my son couldn’t eat them anyway. We always travel with our own snacks for him in situations like this.
- It surprises me that Delta can’t create a peanut-free flight. I don’t think of myself as a warrior mom for whom everyone else has to change just because my son has a peanut allergy. But is the right to peanuts on a flight so absolute that they can’t simply be removed from the flight when given advance notice of an allergic passenger on board?
- I’d think twice about flying on Delta if the allergy were airborne-sensitive. Some people have severe allergic reactions by merely smelling or breathing small amounts of peanut dust. In an confined space like an airplane, I’d be very hesitant at having just a buffer zone with an airborne reaction history.
- Traveling with a larger group is a benefit. Our family created its own buffer zone of sorts, just as my son has a self-created group of friends who avoid peanuts so they can sit by him at lunchtime.
- It was still nerve-wracking. Being locked on an airplane without quick access to a hospital can be dangerous in any medical emergency, but with a severe allergic reaction, time is of the essence. An epi-pen dose only helps for 15 minutes or so, and a second dose will buy a bit more time, but that’s not enough in the case of a severe reaction while at 30,000 feet. Preventing a reaction in the first place is really the first defense.
Questions and Comments:
- Have you flown with a food allergy? What was your experience? What precautions did you take?
- Are there any airlines that offer peanut-free flights? What are the policies of airlines other than Delta?
- What could/should we have done differently?
Please share with a comment below.