On Nov. 29, 2009, my nine-year-old son and I were returning from Monroe, LA on the Dallas to San Francisco leg, which was American Airlines flight # 1965. possible, I would like to pre board so I that I could wipe down (I carry wipes with me) the seats my son and I were assigned to make sure there was no peanut residue because my son has a severe peanut allergy. I have never before had a problem getting this request granted (even on my flights on AA from San Francisco to Dallas to Monroe several days before Thanksgiving). But this gate agent looked somewhat confused and somewhat suspicious of my request, as if I were making up some pretense for getting on the plane before my boarding group (group 4) was to board. He said I could get on with group one. I assumed his unwillingness to allow me to go on early and then come back off was probably related to some administrative issue or his lack of personal awareness about severe food allergies, or maybe he just wasn’t aware of some of the boarding problems for passengers while I am wiping down the seats. When I returned to my seat in the gate seating area, I started thinking about a previous stop that my son had made in Dallas on the way home to California several years earlier, that time my son was flying with his grandmother on his way home to California but while in Dallas he had to be taken from the airport by emergency vehicle to Baylor Hospital emergency because of his allergic reaction to peanuts at the airport or on the plane on which he arrived from Monroe, LA. While I am concerned about the possibility of another such exposure while on the ground, I am particularly concerned about the prospect of a significant allergic reaction while in mid-flight, as all parents of children with severe food allergies are. So I decided to talk with the gate agent again and hopefully clear up whatever concerns he may have had. I told him that my son had a very severe peanut allergy and can’t get into the seats without having them wiped down, and mentioned that doing so can hold up the other passengers as they board. I think he said something like, “I will see what I can do” and I went and sat down. I believe there was a Pilot standing at the end of the counter watching our conversation.
After that conversation with the agent, a manager came up to me and asked me if I would like to get on early and wipe our two seats down, and then board when my group was called. I told her how much I appreciated that opportunity, thanks for the wonderful idea, and she escorted me, leaving my son standing alone in the breezeway, onto the plane and even helped me open the wipes. After we got on the plane, we had to walk through what appeared to be a small meeting that the flight attendants and the pilot (same person who had been standing at the gate counter) was having on the plane.
After wiping down the seats I walked back through the small meeting of flight attendants and the pilot, which was breaking up and followed a first class attendant towards the front since I was going that way to exit the plane. I told her what I had been doing, wiping the seats and why and asked if she would make sure there was no one sitting in front or beside us who was going to be eating any peanut products. She seemed surprised by my request as she struck a defensive posture putting both hands in the air, palms toward me, and walking backwards from me telling me that was up to me. I asked her what she meant – I wanted to know what I could and could not do. I don’t remember if I got a response from her but understood that I would have to use my own judgment and common sense. After going back outside to the gate area and waiting to board with my assigned group 4, my son and I got seated in row 19 and were getting comfortable when a very nice girl seated next to us immediately pulled out a bag of nuts. I asked her very nicely if those were peanuts since my son has a bad peanut allergy and she said no, they were almonds. I told her my son was not allergic to almonds but she said no problem and put the bag away anyway. Then she pulled out a bag of granola, which has peanuts in it, and she asked me if that was ok. I reluctantly said yes, most granola has tons of peanuts in it. All I could think was this young girl must be really hungry because we just sat down and she had already pulled out all this food, possibly everything she had. I really don’t know how the Airlines would handle a situation like this but my first reaction was not to ask her not to eat her food but for us to move away, so she could eat her things without Sinclair being in fear of his life. I just said, “Why don’t we move”. A flight attendant was walking through the plane closing over head bins and checking things and I just looked at her and asked, “do you mind if we move because my son has a sever peanut allergy and I think there are peanuts around”. I actually thought I was being nice. The flight attendant seemed to acknowledge having heard my statement.
Apparently the flight attendant spoke with the ticket manager as the ticket manager had come aboard and back to my seat and said, “Well, you can just get off the plane and get another flight”. Her tone was threatening and very rude but she had a smile on her face. I just looked at her in shock. I believe I said, “Are you serious…” and then with resignation, “OK, great.” I don’t think I had time to even thank the lady beside me because I was to busy watching the ticket manger who was walking towards the front of the plane and was saying that “the pilot wants to be informed about this” and my son breaks out into sobs. I got my son calmed down (who by the way is a wonderful flyer and has been traveling since he was 6 months old) when ticket manager came back and said, “Maam, please get all of your things and get off the plane”. This is literally what she said, no more words, no less. I said to the ticket manager, “Oh, she (the girl sitting next to me) said she’s not going to eat it” to which the ticket manager responded by smiling, moving her head from side to side and in a louder voice stating, “No, Get your things and get off the plane”. All I could do was get my things with my now sobbing child and get off the plane.
I walked down the isle towards the front of the plane with my son and the ticket manager following me. When I got off the plane and onto the ramp, the ticket manager told me to stop and stand right there. For the first minute they actually went to close the door on the plane but the ticket manager stopped them. No one said a word to my son or me. They just let my 9-year-old son stand there and cry while they made phone calls and walked right passed us without even a word for what seemed like forever but I was told was about 30 minutes. I watched without saying anything. I believe they were fully intending to kick me off the plane but needed an ok, which they did not or could not get. This was something unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I believe if they were trying to do something (find an alternative seat) for me they would have said some words to me to that effect. Even the most basic common courtesy would have had someone telling me what was going on. Rather I was kept isolated and in the dark and when I was first approached it was by the ticket manager who was on the phone who looked over at me and asked “do you have an epi pen” I said yes, that I had two (although I actually had three), and that I had benadryl, and inhaler, etc. That’s when the pilot came back down the ramp with a tall lady. She and the pilot started saying things like “we can’t make the plane peanut free, if we move you how do we know that people will have peanuts around you again”, etc. The tall lady then said, “Most people have their shots and just get on the plane, they are fine”. I went to tell her that was not how it worked but they simply walked me back on the plane…again in front of everyone and we were seated in row 8, on the two seat side of the 3-2 configuration on the plane. We sat down but not before I wiped down the seats and my son went to sleep. I just kept playing over and over in my mind what had happened, trying to understand. I felt that my son and I had been humiliated all because of my concern about his severe allergy. After helping me wipe down the seats, I felt I was put on my own and left to guess whether my efforts to make sure my son’s trip was safe (forget enjoyable) would be sufficient or would be approved by the crew. It is very intimidating to be subjected to arbitrary treatment when you’re trying to simply accommodate a child’s disability.