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When the topic of peanuts comes up the first thing many of us think of is enjoying them as a snack at baseball games or during an airline flight.  But for a growing number of families when it comes to this topic what comes to mind is food allergies.  According to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), more than 4 million children in the United States suffer from a food allergy.

These allergies occur when the body’s immune system associates a certain food as harmful and becomes overstimulated to attack the threat causing a person to have a negative reaction.  While there are more than 170 foods people are allergic to, according to a recent report by The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association peanuts as the most common cause of the most dangerous reaction, anaphylaxis, within children.  Anaphylaxis causes blood pressure to drop and airways to swell closed and if not treated immediately can result in serious complications or be fatal.

The AAFA recommends that children with a peanut allergy avoid peanuts in all forms and any products that contain peanut ingredients or may have been contaminated by them.  Of course the notion of being in a confined space, 35,000 feet in the air, where peanuts are known to be widely distributed can be concerning to those traveling with a family member who has this type of food allergy.  So I reached out to Tanya Bumgardner, a communications manager with AAFA, and Lianne Mandelbaum, a food allergy advocate and travel writer for No Nut Traveler, to ask for some guidance for parents about flying with peanut allergies. Here are some tips from the AAFA (in italics) along with commentary from Mandelbaum on the topic:

Air Line Policies:  Visit air carriers’ websites and see if they have a written policy about handling food allergies.  If you don’t see what you are looking for a website, contact the airline directly by calling or emailing them. You may also want to try reaching out to the airlines by social media.  If you are able to obtain a written policy, print it out and bring it with you to the airport. Bookmark on your phone the policy if there is one posted on an air line’s website too just to have it handy.

Mandelbaum noted that when it comes to food allergy policies many airlines are consistently inconsistent.  Based upon reader testimonials on No Nut Traveler, food allergic passengers fly the same carrier on different occasions and experience different treatment. This makes it difficult to navigate the system and make informed choices.

Her own family has had excellent experiences on JetBlue and Air Canada. Other families have left positive testimonials for Southwest, Delta, and British Airways at No Nut Traveler. The caveat with these endorsements though is that even on airlines with established policies, decisions to assist food allergic passengers are inconsistent and often are made on a case-by-case basis by individual flight crews.

Well that is with the exception of American Airlines.  Their policy is crystal clear. No accommodations will be offered to anyone with a food allergy.  Even the ability to pre-board the aircraft to clean for prior contamination is denied.  Mandelbaum obviously doesn’t recommend those with food allergies choose to fly American.

Speak Up:  Well before you fly, inform the airline of your child’s peanut allergy.  Asking for accommodations can reduce the risks of having an allergic reaction while flying.  Request peanuts not be distributed via the snack cart, other passengers not eat peanut containing products or for a peanut free buffer zone (such as no peanuts three rows before and behind yours).  Those with concerns about a food allergy other than peanuts, such as tree nuts or soy, while onboard a flight should speak up as well. 

If you talk to the airline in advance and they agree to certain accommodations, ask if they will send you an email outlining the accommodations. Print the email and have it with you when you board. If your child has a reaction in flight, notify the crew and seek their help with treatment immediately.

You cannot control who sat in the seat before you or know what they consumed but you CAN pre-board the aircraft to thoroughly clean the area remarked Mandelbaum. If allowed you should request to pre-board and clean the area and potentially let others around you know about the allergy. It is difficult to clean thoroughly during a crowded general boarding process she reflected. Cleaning your area well becomes even more important if the airline you have chosen serves your allergen. Children are especially likely to put their hands in their mouths.

Anaphylaxis Plan:  Carry a written food allergy anaphylaxis plan with you on your flight as well as a doctor’s note advising of the need to carry an epinephrine auto-injector with you. Keep an epinephrine auto-injector in your possession at all times.  If possible, keep the medicine in its original packaging with the prescription label to help get through airport security.  Be sure to check expiration dates on epinephrine auto-injectors. Plan to bring, if possible, 2 two-packs of auto-injectors. This is a good time to practice with an auto-injector trainer and review your travel emergency plan with your family. 

Mandelbaum warns parents that airlines are not required to stock easy to use auto-injectors. Rather they are required to stock vials of epinephrine that can only be administered by a medical professional. Don’t count on there being someone on the plane who knows how to do this and is able to on a flight.

Clean Your Seating Area:   When you get to your seat, use an antibacterial wipe to clean all surfaces your child may touch, including the seat, arms and the tray table in front of you. You may even want to bring a sheet or blanket for your peanut allergic child to sit on so they won’t come in contact with any allergens that prior passengers may have left behind. On that note, it is probably best not to use airline provided pillows or blankets.  This can help travelers reduce the risk of having an allergic reaction while flying by avoiding allergens that might linger on airline-provided products. If your child needs these items for your flight, bring your own. 

Mandelbaum stated that cleaning your area well is important, especially if the airline you have chosen serves your allergen. Children are especially likely to put their hands in their mouths. That is why it is so important to try and pre-board a flight to do a wipe over of where you’ll be sitting. It is difficult to clean thoroughly during a crowded general boarding process so those few moments allowed in early-boarding can be precious.

Bring Your Own Safe Food:  On most airlines you can request a peanut free meal, but given your child food you chose or prepared can give you more peace of mind. Bringing your own food ensures you know exactly what is – and isn’t – in what they are eating.  Consider bringing prepackaged safe snacks to share with nearby fellow passengers. If the flight attendants handout nuts, ask those in the seats near you if they would be willing to eat the snack you give them and save the nuts for after the flight. 

Mandelbaum brought to my attention that there are no federal guidelines to protect food allergic passengers on airplanes.  If you have a negative encounter with an air carrier, she recommends filing a Department of Transportation complaint or writing your representatives in Congress.  Bumgardner also encouraged parents to be advocates for passengers’ rights.  She hopes people will contact their legislators and let them know how important this issue is for families with food allergies.  While this is not an immediate solution she admitted, Bumgardner believes it can lead to much-needed long-term changes compared to doing nothing at all.

For those who may be angered by the thought of being inconvenienced on a flight by someone with peanut allergies, please take a moment to consider the following few points. How much are you going to be inconvenienced if your flight needs to make an emergency landing due to a possibly avoidable reaction by allowing some basic accommodations to address a medical condition? How would you honestly feel if someone was to actually be seriously hurt or even die from an anaphylaxis incident while on a plane with you? How would you feel if that person was you … or your child? Food allergies can happen at any age to any person and be triggered by food that someone has been eating their whole life without any prior warning.

For more information about food allergies, please visit the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s website Traveling with food allergies? Head over to plus keep an eye out for more useful info on the topic here at  AAFA’s Kids With Food Allergies division (@kfatweets) and No Nut Traveler (@NoNutTraveler) both have active Twitter accounts.  Plus don’t forget to follow me (@Geekdad248) and @TravelingDads on Twitter as well.

You may also be interested in these Traveling Dad articles:

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