Flying with Food Allergies

Delta’s safety instruction video announces “safety is our number priority.”

I call bullshit.

Sure, air safety is a big priority, but is safety — as a whole, people being safe — really the airline’s number one priority? No. Because if it was, they wouldn’t serve free peanuts and peanut M&Ms on the flight.

How necessary are peanuts on flights?

Flying is hard for a food allergic person. And there’s really nothing that can be done about it, nor am I advocating flights where there’s absolutely no food allowed. I get hungry on planes, too. Plus, the whole ear popping at takeoff thing — you need to chew. So I’m about to get into a problem for which there really is no solution. But there are mitigators, and I am advocating for those.

The air on a plane is stale and recycled. So if an airborne allergen is introduced into the plane, there is no fresh air cycling in that can diffuse the situation. The food allergic person will continue to breathe in the contaminant. Hopefully, said person always carries Benadryl on them. Not even a bad thing, considering sleeping on a plane isn’t super easy. That said, continuing to breathe in the cause of the allergic reaction is unpleasant and in some instances, can result in an anaphylactic reaction that only an Epipen can stop.

You tell me – would you prefer your flight be landed so someone can go to the hospital if it meant you could eat peanuts, or would you rather eat something else?

It’s not just the air. On my flight last night, my tray table was COVERED in crumbs. Not only is that disgusting for the average passenger, because ew, other people’s crumbs, but it’s really dangerous for someone like me. I don’t know what food those crumbs came from. Thank God I was just looking to use my tray table for my laptop – had I put food on it, I wouldn’t be able to eat. Luckily, I just put my laptop on my lap and went about my business. But I couldn’t put it on the tray table because I can’t afford my laptop getting the allergens of the crumbs. It’s more than tray tables, too. Seats aren’t cleaned, arm rests aren’t disinfected. People touch everything, and with an allergen — that could be more than just a cold. If someone eats a salad, touches my armrest, I touch my armrest, and I pop a pineapple slice into my mouth, I’ve just ingested their xanthomonas campestris-covered lettuce allergen. 

Since I’m part of the solution, and not the problem (or at least I strive to be) let me offer some ways I think airlines can make safety actually their first priority — regardless of whether the seat cushions can be used as flotation devices.

Number 1:

Have a clear allergy policy. Virgin America has no allergy policy, but they also have no free food, so one is less likely to run into a problem, given that people aren’t necessarily eating, and if they are, it’s not airline-mandated peanuts. Delta, on the other hand, has a policy, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who knows what it is. One time, the policy was that they wouldn’t serve peanuts to anyone within 3 rows of the allergic person. This is dumb, because as I mentioned above, air circulates and people touch things. And when the person next to you orders peanuts because he sees everyone else eating them, and the flight attendant says “Someone within three rows of you has an allergy, sorry,” the person can get pretty ticked off, and who knows what they will do when they find out it’s you. (Luckily for me, when that situation arose, the person in question had a son who had previously hit me in the face with a remote-control helicopter, so we were even). On my recent flight to NY, the policy was, per the gate attendant, “Call in advance or tell the flight attendant.” On my return flight, the policy was — and rudely stated, I might add — “Did you tell the gate attendant?”

You know how there’s a space when you make a reservation for travel with infants or a wheelchair? How hard is it to add an option to the click-down menu that allows for food allergies? This way, everyone knows in advance, the traveller is responsible for any and all information, and the airline can change what it is serving accordingly. Food allergies are a disability. They ought to be treated as such.

Number 2:

Have water readily available. If you’re going to have sick people on your flight, at least let them hydrate themselves, take medicine, and flush the allergen out of their system. On my beloved Virgin America — on which I’ve gotten sick multiple times — there’s bottled water at the bathrooms, you can press a button and order as much bottled water as you’d like, and the flight attendants even give it to you before takeoff if you finish it before the runway (gotta love FAA regulations). On Delta, and I presume other airlines, you have to ask for water. Which means waiting for the flight attendant to pass you by, because they don’t listen to the button things above the seats. That gets you one cup of water. Not necessarily as much as you ask for. And not a cup that you can be assured wasn’t handled by someone who just ate and touched the rim. Buy fucking bottles of water, and give them out. It’s a basic human need, whether you are allergic or not.

Number 3:

Don’t be rude. If a passenger mentions a food allergy, be accommodating. Do not scoff, do not belittle them, do not roll your eyes. Do not mutter under your breath to your coworker how inconvenient this all is. Do not tell other passengers how ridiculous it is. If you’re going to be a glorified waitress, at least have half as much dignity as an ordinary waitress. It’s nice to be nice. I don’t give a flying fuck if you’re tired and being a flight attendant sucks. It does suck. I have a a friend who was a flight attendant and hated it. But it’s your job, and you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it, and if you can’t do it well, do something else. Life is short, so don’t be an asshole.

Number 4:

Maybe airports and airlines can sell fewer or no peanut and nut-ridden snacks. Avoiding the top 8 allergens totally would be nice. Just sell other foods. They exist! I promise. And hungry passengers will eat anything. Sell potato chips and dried fruit. I get that wheat and dairy are hard because bread and milk are life staples. But sell enough alternatives without them so that if a situation arises where someone can’t be around those foods, you can accomodate. Or just let the wheat-free people have a food option. My Delta flight offered pretzels, cookies, and peanut M&Ms (though the latter was not offered on my flight, thanks to me, even though it was displayed on the carts). Is one wheat free option that hard? Chips? It’s crazy, in this world where everyone and their mother is gluten-free. Airlines seem to be stuck in 1991. That’s not that reassuring.

Most of these rules won’t help me. I can’t see outlawing lettuce or horseradish on a plane, not to mention the 30 other foods I’m allergic to. I get it. I can only hope for people as nice as the woman who sat next to me on my flight last night who, when she noticed her sandwich was bothering me after overhearing my conversation with the flight attendant re: peanuts, asked if her food was an issue. I said it was, because of the lettuce (though I thought it was tuna, whatever, I have hazy eyesight when I react), but that she shouldn’t worry, I had medicine. She offered to eat it quickly, and then asked the flight attendant to dispose of it elsewhere so I wouldn’t get sick. She is a lovely person, and I owe her a lot. I fly often, I’ve taken Benadryl on planes often, and she was the first person to notice and be kind.

The flight attendant’s response, “What, she’s allergic to lettuce, too? Ugh, fiiiiiine.” She later proceeded to eat a salad only one row in front of me (but I thought you had to wait 3 rows for allergies).

I’m allergic to lettuce. Doesn’t mean I don’t have ears and eyes. Ears and eyes which I also use to listen to/watch your safety instructions, which assure me you will do everything to make sure I have an enjoyable flight, and my safety is your number one priority.

Might want to update that demonstration…