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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Airline Policy

This week Qantas followed the NoPeanuts airline theme and announced a new peanut policy. As regular readers know, after our West Jet experience this week I have had a bee in my bonnet with respect to airline peanut policy. It was interesting to read the Qantas policy and see the same verbage all over again. Like West Jet, Qantas will no longer serve peanuts and will also try to avoid serving foods with peanut ingredients. The airline also included the standard wording about the inability to provide a peanut free plane.

To me the ‘cannot-provide-a-peanut-free-plane’ concept misses the mark. People often assume that peanut parents are expecting peanut-free environments. We’re not. We know that’s often impossible. All I am looking for is a quick announcement to other passengers to let them know that a severely allergic child is on board and that it would be appreciated if they did not eat peanuts.

I am left wondering why airlines and other passengers might deem this announcement unreasonable … here are the standard points of contention that I come across online:

Contention #1: Peanut dust inhalation does not cause anaphylaxis

In 1998 the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed that airlines provide peanut-allergic passengers with ‘peanut free’ seating areas. The proposal was denied by congress due to the lack of evidence demonstrating that peanut dust inhalation causes anaphylaxis. Many studies have shown that inhalation of peanut dust can cause a reaction for those allergic to peanut, but the reaction is typically restricted to skin and upper-respiratory symptoms and does not usually result in anaphylaxis. That being said, it has been shown that when >25 people are eating peanuts together on an airplane the reaction can be sufficiently serious to require epinephrine. That risk supports the current ban on peanuts being served in-flight as followed by many airlines.

Contention #2: It’s only 1% of the population … why should we cater to them?

The incidence is higher in young children and has doubled in the past five years. Furthermore, 50% of the cases involved oral ingestion of the allergen and the median age of those who suffered a reaction was two years!! Thus it is reasonable to infer that the most common reaction resulted from a young child eating a peanut … ie: not from inhalation!

It also appears that young children were disproportionately represented in the sample of in-flight allergic reactions. Young children do not know they are allergic. Young children also end up crawling around the floor of the plane (not exactly the cleanest of places). If a child finds a peanut on the floor it will likely end up in their mouth. You know what happens next.

Since it appears that children are the most at risk, it is worth taking the necessary precautions. Making a quick announcement to other passengers is a simple way to create a safer environment for peanut allergic children.

Contention #3: People with a peanut allergy should travel in the morning

It is common for airlines to suggest morning travel for the peanut allergic as people are less likely to eat peanuts and the planes are cleaned overnight. I think that this provides a false sense of security.

Per my Air Peanut article, we flew at 8am and the planes were far from clean. Also, though it is less common for people to eat peanuts early, it does happen. Recently I traveled to the USA and the gentleman directly behind me ripped into a large bag of peanuts at 7am.

Though traveling early is perhaps a good idea, the courtesy announcement I seek would have a greater impact on passenger safety. What happens when the gentleman behind me nods off due to the early flight and drops his bag of peanuts on the floor? He did fall asleep but I am not sure where the peanuts went …

Contention #4: Peanut-allergic passengers should just be prepared

Any parent of an allergic child would be prepared with EpiPens and Benadryl but that is not enough. The contention that passengers should be prepared makes sense for adults but remember that peanut-allergic children would likely not understand their allergy.

Furthermore, this objection requires the underlying assumption that people know they are allergic in the first place. We found out on Boxing Day that our daughter is severely allergic to peanut. Though we suspected an allergy we did not know it was this severe until we saw the anaphylaxis first hand. Unfortunately, that is commonly how severe food allergies are discovered.

There is a first time for everything and though the risk is remote, it is possible that a child could have her first anaphylactic reaction on an airplane. In many ways that would be a worst-case scenario.

Contention #5: Airlines cannot provide a peanut free plane

While this is true, it is also not what I am asking for or expecting. I know that expecting peanut-free is Utopian; however, in addition to not serving peanuts it would be very helpful if the flight crew could let other passengers know that there is a peanut allergic child on board. This will create a safer environment.

As a parent I would still not let my guard down should such an announcement be made. Even better, other passengers would now be aware. In the case of my 7am trip to the USA, I had the aforementioned passenger eating peanuts directly behind me. That would pose a significant risk to my daughter if she had been on the flight. Obviously the passenger would not know where every peanut from every hand-full ended up. Our daughter’s anaphylaxis is triggered by a fraction of a peanut and one breakaway peanut could prove fatal. Is it really worth the risk?

I contend that it is reasonable for the airline to announce, as a courtesy, that there is an allergic child on board and that it would be best for people to not eat peanut.

I have to believe that most people, upon hearing that announcement, would forgo their peanuts to ensure the safety of an unsuspecting allergic child?

West Jet told me that they could not make the courtesy announcement due to legal exposure. I feel that not making an announcement is a bigger legal risk … a carefully crafted announcement would reduce legal exposure and also make kids safer.

This is a no-brainer.


Mikaela said...

I completely agree with your suggestion of asking the airlines to make an announcement as a courtesy. I flew with my allergic son and took every precaution I possibly could by informing the airline ahead of time, wiping down seats and trays and luckily searching for any stray peanuts which I found plenty of my seat pocket. If that announcement had been made, the lady sitting next to my husband would have refrained from breaking into a bag of her own peanuts since the airline did not provide them on that flight.

NoPeanuts said...

It must have been scary to sit near that woman with your child close by! Did you ask her to put them away? The announcement is such a simple thing for the airline staff to do but lawyers somewhere must be telling them to refrain. Obviously with the state of airplane cleanliness they have reason to be concerned! Who knows how long those peanuts have been in the seat pockets! NP.