Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

From the Peanut Gallery: Should Food Allergies Determine What is Served Aboard Airplanes?

eople tend to go nuts when it comes to food allergies of passengers determining what food is served aboard aircraft; and the debate rages on as to whether or not airlines and their passengers should go out of their way to accommodate those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from such allergies — or whether or not people who are severely affected should avoid traveling altogether and simply stay home.

Although this article which I wrote back on Thursday, August 21, 2014 covered nut allergies from both sides of the issue in the news, this article which you are currently reading will go into more depth — but first, let us start with what exactly is an allergy.

Definition of an Allergy

“A damaging immune response by the body to a substance, esp. pollen, fur, aparticular food, or dust, to which it has become hypersensitive” is the definition of an allergy, according to Oxford Dictionaries.

“An allergy starts when the immune system mistakes a normally harmless substance for a dangerous invader”, according to an article posted by the staff of the Mayo Clinic. “The immune system then produces antibodies that are always on the alert for that particular allergen. When you’re exposed to the allergen again in the future, these antibodies can release a number of immune system chemicals, such as histamine, that cause allergy symptoms.”

Allergies can be bad enough to have at home and at work. They can be mildly annoying at best; but they can be debilitating and even life-threatening to the sufferer of an allergy…

…and it is not uncommon for people to suffer from greater than one allergy.

However, allergies can become more significant when you are traveling. Certain situations which may not be a factor at home or at work can suddenly become major impediments which infringe on your enjoyment of travel. How do you deal with allergies when you travel?

Petition to Airlines

Lianne Mandelbaum of The No Nut Traveler has launched a petition which would require airlines to institute a “bill of rights” for passengers — both children and adults — who have allergies to food; and it is posted below in its entirety:

My son Joshua and I were horrified when United airlines refused to accommodate his life-threatening peanut allergy. Please sign my petition to ensure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.

Children and adults with food allergies should be able to report their allergy without fear of being kicked off a flight. As it stands, they have no such rights and cases have been reported of people being taken off a flight for reporting a food allergy.

It should be standard that, once informed, the crew create a buffer zone at least three rows in front and three rows behind the allergic person. The crew member should ask customers seated in the buffer zone to refrain from consuming any nut containing products that they have brought onboard and the crew will not serve any nut containing products to these rows.

There are no federal guidelines to protect this growing population of consumers, either. Therefore, different flight crews on the same airlines will react differently to a food allergy request. This makes flying even more stressful and dangerous for the child or adult with an anaphylactic allergy.

Please sign the petition to ask airlines to properly accommodate food allergic passengers, and for legislators to pass regulations requiring them to do so!

As of the time this article was posted, 76,855 people have signed the petition — but Mandelbaum might not have much luck in ensuring that the petition is successful with its results.

Should Peanuts Be Similarly Banned as Cigarettes?

The days where cigarette smoking was permitted aboard aircraft during flights seems like eons ago. Thankfully, I started flying as a passenger when those days were waning — but I still experienced the misfortune of being seated in the row right in front of the smoking section. Yeah, sure — like I would not be affected by the second-hand smoke and breath it in just because I was seated in the last row of the non-smoking section. I should have just pretended I was choking — well, I really did not have to pretend — and alert the nearest stewardess that I was allergic to tobacco smoke…

…but is this a valid analogy? I know a number of FlyerTalk members who still smoke tobacco products. The first thing they do after debarking from the airplane is run to the nearest area where smoking is permitted and light up that heavenly (?) breath of that lung-killing tobacco goodness. Should there be an isolated area of the airport where peanuts are permitted to be consumed so as not to aggravate those who suffer from severe peanut allergies? After all, no one died immediately after inhaling the smoke exhaled from a passerby puffing on what some people dub a “cancer stick” — at least, not to my knowledge anyway.

In other words: should peanuts suffer the same fate as cigarettes by being banned aboard flights?

A Failed Attempt to Ban Peanuts Served Aboard Airplanes

In response to a proposed rule to ban peanuts being served aboard flights, the Department of Transportation of the United States reportedly acknowledged in 2010 that the ban would be a violation of a 2000 appropriations act and therefore could not move forward on a proposal that might have created new protections for airline passengers who suffer from peanut allergies.

To complicate this issue even more: even though flight attendants may refuse to serve peanuts aboard an airplane, they supposedly cannot legally prevent someone from carrying on board the aircraft their own bag of peanuts and consuming them at their leisure — although they can strongly recommend against it or attempt to order passengers not to do so due to the potential danger, as evidenced by this incident in 2006. Unlike the use of electronic devices, there is no time during the entire flight when a passenger is restricted from snacking on peanuts or other types of foods — whether the aircraft is above or below 10,000 feet, parked at the gate, taking off, landing, or taxiing on the runway.

Buffer Zone Seating for Severe Peanut or Nut Allergies

Another way to resolve this issue is to simply not allow a passenger with a peanut allergy to board the aircraft, as supposedly happened to a resident of Nova Scotia when he was denied a seat on the airplane of a flight operated by Air Canada back in 2011. He was on his way to Fiji. Unlike the Department of Transportation of the United States, the Canadian Transportation Agency reportedly ruled back in Januury of 2010 that passengers who have nut allergies should be considered disabled and accommodated accordingly by the airline — and Air Canada was ordered to come up with an appropriate section of seats where passengers with nut allergies would be seated contingent upon the passenger with the severe allergy to contact the airline a minimum of 48 hours ahead of time to request and ensure that a peanut-free buffer zone will be established by the airline and set up around the seat of the allergy sufferer in order to help avoid the risk of exposure. If the passenger has a severe allergy but did not bother to notify Air Canada at least 48 hours before the flight, then Air Canada can apparently refuse to allow that person to board the aircraft.

If you suffer from allergies and are flying as a passenger on an airplane operated by Air Canada, here is what you need to know if you would like to request a buffer zone set up around you:

  • Only the other customers seated within the buffer zone will be briefed on board by the flight attendant prior to departure:
    • They will be informed that they must not consume nut or peanut products
    • They will not be offered any Air Canada Café items containing nuts or peanuts
  • There will not be a general announcement to all customers about the existence of a buffer zone or about the customer with severe nut or peanut allergies.


To request a buffer zone, please contact the Air Canada Medical Assistance Desk at a minimum of 48 hours before the flight — regardless of your itinerary. If your request is placed within 48 hours, Air Canada will make a reasonable effort to accommodate you.

1-800-667-4732 — toll-free between Canada and the United States
1-514-369-7039 — long distance charges apply

Hours of operation:

Note: In International Business Class, the buffer zone consists of the suite occupied by the passenger with allergies.

In this article, I provide a summary of the policies of different airlines in the United States and Canada pertaining to how they deal with passengers with allergies to peanuts.

Certain Foods and Beverages May Not Be Served Altogether

Some airlines decline to serve certain food products aboard the aircraft during a flight when they know that one of the passengers has a severe allergy — such as where products containing peanuts were not served on a particular flight, or where alcoholic beverages were not served during a particular flight.

American Airlines reportedly created a policy to become a peanut-free airline back in 2002 — but this policy is apparently no longer in force. Should other airlines follow this policy to reduce the risk of exposing passengers allergic to peanuts and thereby preventing a potentially dangerous situation?

Symptoms of Allergic Reactions

Those people who are unfortunate enough to have severe allergies apparently suffer from adverse reactions. According to staff from the Mayo Clinic — I hope that you are not allergic to mayonnaise — nasal congestion and skin flushing are amongst the most common symptoms associated with an intolerance for alcohol caused by ingredients such as preservatives, chemicals, histamine or grains…

…but that addresses consumption. In a cursory search for cases pertaining to intolerance to alcohol, I found information on dimethylformamide — which can be used as a solvent and certainly not meant to be ingested — and something known as Asian Flush syndrome, which is caused by the consumption of alcoholic beverages and apparently not by inhalation; nor is it considered fatal in and of itself.

Based on this information, I see no reason for alcoholic beverages to not be served aboard an aircraft during a flight — but because I never partake in consuming alcoholic beverages, I will be the first to admit that I am no expert on this subject. If you are a doctor or a medical professional, I invite you to please enlighten me and readers of The Gate by posting a comment below with information as to when alcoholic beverages should not be serve aboard an aircraft.

Peanut Allergies are Another Matter

According to the Mayo Clinic, an allergic reaction may occur if you inhale dust or aerosols containing peanuts, such as that of peanut flour. Symptoms of the allergic reaction may include discomfort, such as swelling of the skin, runny nose, itching, shortness of breath or a tightening of the throat — or anaphylaxis could be a symptom which can cause a reaction that can threaten your life if your allergy to peanuts is severe enough.

The good news is that a patch for people who suffer from allergies associated with peanuts has reportedly been effective in extensive tests recently conducted throughout North America and Europe, which could potentially resolve the peanut allergy issue aboard airplanes in the future.

Should Members of Flight Crews Take Chances?

Here is an incident from 2008 as recalled by FlyerTalk member B747-437B regarding a child four years of age who suffered a severe reaction as the result of a nut allergy after eating a chicken meal with cashew nuts while aboard the aircraft during a flight. The actions of his mother were considered by the captain and a doctor who tended to the child to be potentially life-threatening, as she refused to accept any treatment for her son, whose medication was inaccessible in their checked baggage. Did the flight crew act appropriately? Was the mother of the child justified in refusing treatment for her son?

So — do flight attendants take a chance on serving peanuts in close quarters which contains a person who could potentially suffer a fatal reaction from inhaling the dust emanating from an opened bag of peanuts simply because another passenger wants to eat them as a snack while in flight?

You might argue that there are many people with allergic reactions to certain foods. Should those foods not be served as well? If you support not serving peanuts aboard aircraft, you could counter that being allergic to peanuts is the most common cause of medical emergencies which required treatment with an epinephrine — or adrenaline — injector and a trip to an emergency room in a hospital.

I do not believe that food should not be served simply because it can cause an allergy if consumed. It is the responsibility of the person with the allergy to ensure that whatever food is ingested will not cause an allergic reaction — that is, if the person has experienced an allergic reaction to that particular food in the past. Foods known to cause an allergic reaction should simply be avoided by the sufferer.

Then again, if you suffer from nut allergies — peanuts are part of the legume family and are not classified as nuts — how do you know whether or not a particular food contains nuts or was packaged in a factory on the same equipment on which nuts are processed unless it states so on the label of the package containing the food? What about dairy items such as milk? Wheat items? Shellfish?

It may even be argued that if the food allergy or intolerance at best causes discomfort or a minor reaction as the result of an accidental interaction, that is not grounds for refusing to serve it to other passengers on a flight.


Severe allergies from which people suffer in general should not be taken lightly. In fact, severe reactions to peanut allergies can be fatal — and I do not blame flight attendants for not wanting to take a chance at serving peanuts aboard a flight if there is a chance of the potential death of at least one passenger known to suffer from severe reactions to peanuts as a result…

…but the real question is whose rights have a priority: the allergy sufferer; or those who are seated nearby the allergy sufferer? Is there a reasonable compromise? Is FlyerTalk member Kate_Canuck correct in saying that “There is no bright line, universal answer” in response to this article which I originally wrote on Friday, March 15, 2013?

As I already said: in this article, I provide a summary of the policies of different airlines in the United States and Canada pertaining to how they deal with passengers with allergies to peanuts. I also intend to address other items to which passengers may be allergic pertaining to airlines in a different article in the future.

Should the policy of either denying passengers from boarding the aircraft if they have food allergies or excluding them from the cabin be adopted by the transportation departments of other countries — or is this policy unjust and going too far overboard? Do you agree with the idea of establishing “nut-free zones” aboard airplanes? Should passengers with peanut allergies be allowed to pre-board on an airplane with their travel companions? Is the refusal to serve peanuts to passengers on an airplane simply because one passenger has a peanut allergy unjust and going too far overboard? What about dogs who are allergic to nuts?

What did airlines do years ago when the only snack served on flights was peanuts? How many deaths or serious injuries officially occurred because peanuts — or other food and beverage products which can potentially cause severe allergic reactions — were served during flights?

Would you refrain from consuming peanuts while seated aboard the aircraft if you were asked to do so?

I do not drink alcoholic beverages or consume peanuts and nuts anyway — nor have I ever had any allergies — so I would prefer for you to please opine…

Photograph ©2015 by Brian Cohen.

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