(4/15/2022) One of our teenage daughters is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, sesame seeds and various fruits. Over the years, we have walked the fine line of allowing her to participate in normal school and competitive sports activities while also keeping her safe and advocating for reasonable policy changes and accommodations for the food allergy community – specifically in our school system in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, DC.
I use the term “reasonable” because many times food allergy parents are called “unreasonable” and accused of asking others to bend to our every whim… even when the irony is glaring. While participating on a committee to construct our school system’s food allergy policy, I actually advocated against trying to make all cafeterias nut-free and instead pressed for a focus on nut-free classrooms with the thinking that allergens could be reasonably handled in large cafeteria spaces but not in intimate classroom settings where shared supplies and spaces could be contaminated, and air circulation is limited. The same calculation applies to airplane cabins (confined space, limited air circulation, etc.) and therefore life-saving accommodations for severe allergies on airplanes are reasonable – not indulgent.
Since our daughter’s has had airborne reactions, we purposely waited to “teach her how to fly” until we felt she was old enough to recognize and verbalize symptoms of an allergic reaction as well as advocate for her own safety. A few months before the pandemic hit, my husband took her on a short flight on Jet Blue solely to show her the ropes. All went well – she was thrilled. We had a flyer on our hands!
Last week we took her and one of her friends down to Florida for Spring Break. We chose Delta because we always understood they had a very good reputation of accommodating nut allergies and a focus on keeping passengers safe. I was not thrilled that this meant we would have two flights down with a connection in Atlanta and the same on the way back home to Washington, DC. At the time of purchasing the ticket, I marked her peanut allergy – but there was no place to mark her tree nut allergy.
On the day of our trip, we checked in at the gate and had a conversation with the Delta agent before boarding our Reagan DC – Atlanta, GA flight. The head flight attendant came off the plane and asked us if she was also allergic to tree nuts because although they do not serve peanuts, Delta does serve almonds. When we replied that she was also allergic to tree nuts, he said that they would not serve any nut products on the flight. As we pre-boarded, I thanked the flight attendants when we stepped on the plane. One of the female attendants then said – Just so you know for future flights, we do serve almonds and technically a flight crew can still do so while giving you a buffer zone of one row in front and behind you. I thanked her again and reiterated how much we appreciated that nuts would not be served on that flight. We washed down our daughter’s armrests with Clorox wipes and put a disposable seat cover down.
For our second flight that day, we would be flying from Atlanta – Panama City Beach, FL The flight was so short that there would be no snacks served. Regardless, we still spoke with the Delta agent at the gate check-in and repeated that we had nut allergies. We also pre-boarded, wiped down and covered the seat, and spoke with the flight attendants. At the start of the flight, the flight crew made an announcement that there was a severe nut allergy onboard and asked that passengers refrained from eating any nut products that they might have brought on.
When we got to our vacation rental, I remembered what the flight attendant had said so went on the Delta website and tried to figure out how to note my daughter’s tree nut allergy. The website only specifically addresses peanut allergy, which by the way states – “When you notify us of a peanut allergy, we’ll refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products aboard your flight. Instead, we’ll offer non-peanut snack items to everyone.” I began a text chat with a Delta representative that included –
Me: Hi, we are flying back home on Friday (text written on Monday). I had marked my daughter’s peanut allergy on the ticket but how do I mark tree nut allergy as well? I want to give the crew a heads -up as I know they might serve almonds. Today’s crew was nice enough to serve other snacks instead which we greatly appreciated.
Delta: Good night Kara, thank you very much for reaching out with this issue. You’d simply need to inform the gate agent of the allergy and there will be no food of the sort served on the flight.
The agent went on to request our names and confirmation number, etc. I finished the chat session feeling confident that we would be accommodated properly.
On the way home, our first flight was another short one from Panama City Beach, FL – Atlanta, GA. Again, we notified the agent at the gate check-in and the flight attendants as we pre-boarded. There was no snack service on this flight but since passengers can still bring food onboard, we figured another announcement would be made like the previous flight for this leg of the trip. When no announcement was made on this flight, my husband asked a flight attendant if one would be made, and she replied that there would not be an announcement because Delta did not do that. We were not happy but did not push the issue since there was no snack service and there did not seem to be people bringing food on and eating around us.
The next and last leg of the trip was Atlanta, GA – Reagan DC. Again, we notified the agent at check-in (husband actually went up a second time when an additional agent sat down as well). We also spoke with the head flight attendant upon pre-boarding who assured us that no nuts would be served and that we were in good hands. We settled into our seats – my daughter was in an aisle seat with her friend sitting next to her in a center seat, and my husband and I sat directly behind them. The flight crew made an announcement about a severe peanut allergy. When the head flight attendant walked past us afterwards my husband politely confirmed with him that he understood that it was actually a peanut and tree nut allergy – ALL NUTS. He assured us that he understood. Mid-flight we suddenly hear the woman behind us raise her voice and say – Why are you serving nuts if you made an announcement about a severe allergy??
Now, we turn in our seats and see that the food service cart had started from the back of the plane and unbeknownst to us had been serving nut products to half the plane. I pulled my mask down and could smell nuts. I handed my daughter a thicker KN95 mask to put on instead of the regular medical mask she was wearing. My husband asked the flight attendant to please stop serving nuts and he shot back that he was allowed to serve nuts. My husband countered that actually we had gone through all the proper notification procedures and had been assured in WRITING and IN PERSON that no nuts would be served. The flight attendant was insistent and would not stop. He stated that he is allowed to serve nuts to everyone except in the row of the nut allergy. At this point, the young man on the other side of the aisle from my daughter is now eating peanut m&m’s so even if that were the policy, they did not follow it! I start calculating in my head how much time is left on the flight versus how long the six Epi-pens and Auvi-Qs in my purse and two on my daughter would last in an emergency.
My husband got up from his seat and tracked down the head flight attendant at the front of the plane who then came back and stopped the snack service. There was discussion among the flight crew then the head flight attendant came back and said he was sorry for the misunderstanding and acknowledged he said no nuts would be served, blaming it on miscommunication among the flight crew. But then he stated that we should know for future travel that Delta’s policy is to offer a buffer zone of two rows in front and two rows behind us. This is different than what we were told earlier in the week and by the nut-serving flight attendant earlier in this flight!
Four different Delta flights with four different Delta nut allergy policies… life-saving policies should not depend on the mood of the flight crew that you happen to have on any given flight on any given day. The airline industry needs to have clear safety regulations in place so ALL travelers can make informed decisions and travel safely regardless of disability.