October 14, 2014 — Indulge me for just a moment — imagine the following scenario. My family and I are getting ready to travel to Hawaii. I go online to make my airline reservation, and there’s a box for me to check to indicate that we will be traveling with a child who has severe nut allergies. Yet another box pops up that asks whether her allergens are triggered through ingestion only, contact and/or inhalation. I check all that apply including the risk of inhalation.
Twenty-four hours before our flight’s departure, everyone on our sceduled flight, including ourselves, receives an email from the airline indicating that there will be a person traveling on our flight to Hawaii that has a severe nut allergy. The airline then requests that all passengers consume their nuts prior to their flight or immediately thereafter.
When we show up at the airport the following day, the check-in agents know who we are and the fact that we are traveling with a young child who has severe nut allergies. We are then told to go through security and wait for our flight in the allergy-friendly zone that is nut and pet-free. One hour prior to our departure the airline sends out another text message to all passengers reminding them about the nut allergy and the health risk that’s involved.
Ten minutes prior to boarding, we are allowed on the plane to clean and sanitize my daughter’s seating area. Prior to departure and while announcements are being made, flight crews again remind travelers about the serious nature of nut allergies.
I, of course, have brought extra snacks for those passengers who may be upset about the request to not eat nuts. Meanwhile, flight attendants have pulled all snacks containing nut products from their carts.
Right now this is just a dream scenario. But can you imagine what a difference that flying experience would be for the millions of people who have life-threatening nut allergies?
My hope is that we’re a few steps closer to the realization of that dream thanks to the Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, a not-for-profit that advocates on behalf of those with disabilities. They gave us a platform at the Universal Access in Airports Conference last week to discuss the challenges of flying with nut allergies.
With an audience of about 125 airline representatives and a handful of federal transportation officials, I had the opportunity to talk about our own flying experience – the good, bad and ugly. I also showed them our movie “More Than An Inconvenience” that looks at the issue of flying with nut allergies. The audience was receptive and the feedback was positive.
No doubt, this is an area where the airlines are struggling. If only they would realize that being proactive reduces their liability; it doesn’t increase it. To that end, the following recommendations were made:
- Airlines need to have clear, consistent food allergy policies that travelers can rely on.
- Passengers should be allowed time to pre-board and wipe down surfaces.
- Announcements should be made about the presence of nut allergic passengers, and the potential health hazard that could result from eating nuts on board
- Buffer zones should be created. (More on this topic later as I have concerns about how the peanut industry may respond to this.)
- Airlines should carry epinephrine auto-injectors. Case in point, there’ve been two situations within recent months where medical personnel had difficulty using epinephrine supplied in airline medical kits on individuals who were in anaphylaxis.
In conversations with conference attendees about the potential of setting up “allergy-friendly” spaces within the airports that would be free of nuts and animals, I received some encouraging feedback. For example, the Chicago Department of Aviation now has two yoga rooms, and I proposed that a similar space could be designated as an allergy-friendly zone.
In terms of cabin design, I was fortunate enough to meet a top Boeing designer, and we spent some time talking about how the interior of a plane could be redesigned to protect individuals with severe allergies. She’s now connected me with the company’s health and safety expert. They seem interested in the topic, especially in light of the Ebola scare.
On a final note, you may soon be seeing our film “More Than An Inconvenience” in airport terminals around the country. Some have agreed to show our longer, five minute version of the film while others expressed an interest in a one minute version.
Be on the lookout for this important film, and when you see it, act like a “Nielsen family” and thank airport executives for making this resource available to gain more understanding of the dangers of food allergies.
All in all, the conference was productive, and I look forward to seeing where we are a year from now.
Safe Travels —