Calls to Protect Allergic Airline Passengers Fail to Trigger Legislative Action in Britain

Summer 2015 –

Traveling by plane with allergies to tree nuts or peanuts can be a tricky issue, often requiring a standing battle plan. That could mean booking flights in advance, researching airline allergy policies, wiping down seats and trays with alcohol pads and packing doses of self-injectable epinephrine in case of an allergic reaction. But should the burden of preventing a severe allergic reaction be the sole responsibility of passengers?

This question was brought to the forefront as Ian Paisley Jr, a member of the Parliament, who called for a change in British law that would require all passengers arriving or leaving the UK to be informed when a passenger with nut allergies is on board a flight. Unfortunately, Paisley was only able to bring awareness to the issue during an adjournment debate at the House of Commons, and was not able trigger any legislative action.

But that did not stop one of his constituents from campaigning about the threat of food borne allergens on flights.  Coming in contact with these nuts can have deadly consequences that include going into anaphylactic shock, a multi-organ allergic reaction, which could lead to difficulty breathing and death.

Helena Erwin, whose daughter suffers from a severe nut allergy, contacted Paisley after her family dealt with flight crews who were unresponsive to her pleas to make an announcement of her daughter’s allergies.

On February 9, Paisley delivered a speech informing members of the House of Commons that the UK does not have a consistent approach in notifying passengers about food allergy warnings onboard.

In response to Paisley’s argument, Robert Goodwill, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport responded that “The Government would need to be certain that the benefits of introducing any new regulation, such as a requirement for airlines to make a pre-flight announcement, was proportionate, and would have a significant impact in terms of risk reduction.”  The core argument made by opponents to in-flight allergen announcements is that this legislative action would put an unfair burden on the airline industry.

“We believe this is not an unfair burden, especially since this mode of transportation doesn’t allow passengers with allergies to move away from their triggers or get off the plane when they come into contact with one of their allergens,” said Amy Wicker, president of AllergySafeTravel.

When airlines refuse to make these short announcements, the burden gets placed on passengers like Erwin who often have to begin their polite campaign of explanation and entreaty to other passengers and flight personnel. But without the help of airline officials, these efforts can be futile.

In February, a British family wasn’t allowed to board an American Airlines flight after asking the flight crew to announce their son’s nut allergy. After a flight attendant refused to make the announcement, the family was forced to spend two more nights in Florida figuring out alternative arrangements to travel home.

The failure of legislative action was met with disappointment especially from families who were hoping this action could protect themselves and their loved ones. AllergySafeTravel finds the inaction due to “lack of scientific studies” to be disappointing considering the growing number of anecdotal cases that are now occurring.  Just last summer, there were four cases of anaphylaxis on board flights during a three-month period. One of those cases involved a 4-year-old girl who went into anaphylactic shock and fell unconscious after a passenger ignored the flight crew’s warnings about her deadly allergy. The plane had to make an emergency landing, and the girl had to be revived by an epinephrine auto-injector.

One in 20 British nationals have a food allergy, and recent studies such as the 2013 report from the National Center for Health Statistics have shown food allergies to be on the rise.   The study found that allergic conditions are one of the most prevalent medical issues affecting children today and that the prevalence of food and skin allergies has increased in children under age 18 years.

Paisley’s office could not be reached for comment on future legislative plans.

By Yoona Ha