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Jane Wolkowicz/MEDILL

Packets of peanuts will continue to be served on many planes, unless someone with an allergy specifically requests otherwise.

DOT airline ruling upsets peanut allergy advocates

by Jane M. Wolkowicz
April 21, 2011

Advocates for individuals with peanut allergies are frustrated after a ruling by the U.S. Department of Transportation left airlines free to make their own decisions regarding serving peanuts on commercial flights.

A final rule issued Wednesday stated that a 12-year-old law regarding peanut policy prevents the DOT from taking action on airplanes without further scientific study.  The ruling stated that a total ban on peanuts and peanut products is impractical and unenforceable because there is no way to stop passengers from bringing peanut products into the cabin.

Different recommendations were considered after the DOT asked for public input on the idea of banning all peanut service on planes.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, based in Fairfax, Va. said the practical solution was the complete peanut ban. Chris Weiss, vice president of advocacy, said it remains unclear why the DOT didn’t offer to conduct a study to test the severity of an airborne reaction.

“What stood out for us is that they cite the lack of a peer reviewed  study,” Weiss said. “But when we submitted our comment we absolutely offered to work with the DOT to conduct such a study that we are more than qualified to do.” 

Some suggested passengers with peanut allergies be allowed to ask that peanuts not be served on flights they take. Another ideas was creating a buffer zone immediately in front and behind passengers who notify the flight crew that they have an allergy.         

More than 3 million people in the U.S. report being allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or both, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in Milwaukee. That amounts to about 1 percent of the population.

Shania Smith, 25, who suffers from a peanut allergy and travels frequently for work from her New York City marketing firm, said she thinks peanuts should be completely banned from flights.

“It is one of the most common allergies, so why make people suffer who are paying good money for the flight and sit in close quarters,” Smith said. “Sadly, it is something that myself and I think most others have learned to deal with because even friends of mine are not always accommodating as people love peanut butter, so I just have to look out for myself.”

Although there hasn’t been an official scientific study conducted testing the severity of an allergic reaction on a plane, Dr. Shantharaj Samuel, a Portage Park pediatrician, said he is concerned that there is no control regarding other passengers who bring their own peanuts aboard , even if airlines stop serving them. He believes an allergic reaction could be triggered easily because of the recycled air on the plane.

“Even if peanuts are eaten in first class, the air can re-circulate back into economy class,” Samuel said. “And even if a child is issued an EpiPen, it wouldn’t last long enough for a long flight.”

Dr. Stephanie Joe, director of the Sinus and Nasal Allergy Center at University Illinois at Chicago, said that parents with children who suffer from peanut allergies should be very cautious before taking them on a plane.

“The problem with peanut allergies is that people have a very individual, specific response,” she said.

Joe recommends those with peanut allergies take an antihistamine such as Benadryl before boarding a flight, which may slow a reaction.  And they should always inform flight attendants who will know they are traveling with an EpiPen and can make an announcement informing other passengers about their allergy.

Although Christine Szychlinski, a nurse practitioner who specializes in pediatric allergy and immunology in Lincoln Park recognizes that individuals with peanut allergies cannot control others around them, said she has a practical solution for traveling families.

“I always recommend that families take two snacks with them when they travel,” she said. “That way they can offer one to another child who might be traveling with a snack containing peanuts.”

Airlines have different policies regarding peanuts on board. Southwest, for example, tells passengers to inform the airline before travel about their allergy so flight attendants know not to serve peanuts on that flight. Delta takes it a step further, offering a buffer zone three rows in front of and behind someone suffering from an allergy and giving them the option to board early in order to wipe down their seat, according to the website.

Although Szychlinski sees the appeal of this, she recommends disposable seat covers as an affordable,  more sanitary option for allergy sufferers, as opposed to travelers trying to wipe down the seats themselves.

Alexandra Messiter, another frequent traveler from New York City with a serious peanut allergy, said she will continue to feel uncomfortable sitting in an airplane seat until peanuts are completely banned.

“Given how common peanut allergies are, it always surprises me that airlines are willing to take that risk,” she said. “Left to their own devices, many airlines are not only permitting people to bring peanuts onto planes, but are actually still giving out peanuts and nuts as snacks. I don’t really understand why this issue can’t be regulated, since it involves the safety of airline passengers which numerous other regulations have been enacted to ensure.”