Category Archives: Airline Report

The Airline Report Newsletter

Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against United Airlines

Summer 2015 –

A California woman loses her court battle against United Airlines that stemmed from a life-threatening allergic reaction she had on board a flight. In May, a U.S. District Court judge in Sacramento threw out the claims that Alisa Gleason had filed stating that her charges of negligence, emotional distress and breach of contract were preempted by the Airline Dergulation Act, a 1978 federal law that removed government control over the airlines. In his ruling, Judge Morrison England wrote that Gleason’s claims relate to the services of an air carrier and are therefore preempted by the Airline Dereguation Act.

Gleason, who has a life-threatening peanut allergy, boarded a flight from Florida to Chicago on United Airlines on May 28, 2011. Before the flight, she asked United employees to make an announcement for passengers to refrain from eating peanuts on the flight; United agreed. However, once on the plane, United crewmembers on the flight refused to make that announcement as promised. In fact, one flight attendant allegedly said to her, “What do you want me to do about it?” when she told him she had a peanut allergy.

One hour into the flight, Ms. Gleason started experiencing an allergic reaction. She had noticed that someone four rows behind her was eating peanuts. She took Benadryl and an inhaler to no avail and her reaction worsened. She went to the bathroom, and a flight attendant ordered her out. She took out her inhaler, and allegedly was told by the flight attendant to put away the “nail polish” because the odor might disturb other passengers. Flight attendants and a passenger who was a nurse told the pilot that Ms. Gleason may not survive all the way to Chicago, which was 40-45 minutes away, as she was lapsing in and out of consciousness and experiencing stridor. The pilot made an emergency landing in Missouri. Ms. Gleason was treated at a hospital in Missouri for two days in intensive care.

Although the judge dismissed the lawsuit, United nevertheless received a lot of negative publicity, especially in the food allergy community. A few lessons can be learned to prevent such an incident like this in the future. First, if a passenger is showing signs of an allergic reaction, make sure the passenger is treated with epinephrine as soon as possible. Every on-board medical kit has epinephrine. Early treatment can mean the difference between life and death and can often prevent the situation from becoming worse or dire.

Second, treat the allergic passenger with respect. Food allergy is a recognized disability by the Department of Transportation, so treat them with the same care as any other disabled passenger. Showing kindness and compassion can go a long way. Lawsuits are often brought because a person feels mistreated, and studies show that a little bit of kindness can often discourage a lawsuit.

Lastly, be consistent. If your airline has an allergy policy, make sure it is enforced. Make sure the customer service representatives know the policy in addition to every other crew member so that their promises are followed through by the flight crew. The seeming randomness of how policies are enforced or not enforced contributes to the passengers’ frustration and makes them more likely to take action against the airline.

By: Laurel Francoeur, Attorney and Founder of the Allergy Law Project, an advocacy group for individuals with food allergies. Author of “Flying with Food Allergies”.

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

Airlines Upgrade Safety by Receiving Food Allergy Training

Summer 2015 –

When airline executives now receive disability training, food allergies will be a part of that discussion, thanks to Open Doors, a non-profit advocacy group for people with disabilities.  Due to the growing prevalence of food allergies, the Chicago-based organization began to include the information in its training program beginning in January.

“We have included severe nut allergies in our education programs and recognize that severe nut allergies can be fatal,” said Executive Director Eric Lipp.  “Our approach is to establish a consistent minimum policy that all airlines can follow that calls on them to instruct their flight crews to make an announcement when a passenger has a severe nut allergy.”

Lipp acknowledges that airlines can’t prevent passengers from bringing nuts on board, but says an announcement could discourage passengers from opening nut packages.

“It’s really a shared responsibility.  Passengers with nut allergies should make sure they take all preventive arrangements before boarding, including having an epinephrine auto-injector and wiping down seats from previous passengers.  We are hoping that airlines will step up and establish higher standards when it comes to dealing with severe nut allergies,” added Lipp, who notes that many airlines today routinely include an epinephrine auto-injector in their on-board medical kits.

The organization, founded in 2000, advocates on behalf of all persons with disabilities so that they may have the same consumer opportunities as everyone else. They aspire to teach businesses how to succeed in the disability market, while simultaneously empowering the disability community.

By: David Brimm
 

My Journey with Airborne Nut Allergies

Summer 2015 –

Five years ago, I boarded a flight from Chicago with my husband and two daughters, one of whom has asthma and life-threatening nut allergies, to attend a family member’s wedding in California.  Twenty minutes after take-off we began smelling nuts—within seconds my daughter started to react.

I grabbed the epinephrine, nebulizer, and Benadryl and started medicating my then 5 year old.  After several terrorizing minutes of not knowing whether she’d go into full anaphylactic shock, her medicine kicked in, and her symptoms slowly subsided.

There are no words to adequately describe my fear of being in the sky at 35,000 feet and watching my daughter react to one of her deadliest allergens.  That day…we got lucky.   What caused my daughter’s reaction—a couple sitting several rows in front of us opened a can of mixed nuts.

We are not alone on this journey of navigating air travel and life-threatening allergies to the inhalation of nut proteins.  There are others who have had similar, even worse, reactions on board flights.

Nearly three years ago, Alisa Gleason of Sacramento went into anaphylactic shock on board a flight when a woman sitting several rows away from her opened a bag of peanuts.  According to published reports, Gleason said as soon as she inhaled the airborne peanut proteins, it felt as though her lungs collapsed.  “Every time you breathe, it closes in and doesn’t open,” she said.  The plane diverted and made an emergency landing in St. Louis where Gleason spent two days in ICU.

Last August, a 4-year-old girl went into anaphylactic shock. On this flight, the flight attendants made repeated announcements about a passenger with life-threatening allergies to peanuts and requested that such products not be opened.  Sadly, a passenger, sitting several rows away from the girl, opened a bag of nuts.  The girl stopped breathing and luckily survived after being revived by epinephrine.

The plane was diverted to make an emergency landing.

While we don’t know exactly how many passengers have had airborne reactions to nuts on airplanes since there are no reporting requirements, there are steps airlines can take to safeguard passengers who have life-threatening allergies to nuts.

  • First, allow affected travelers time to pre-board flights for wiping down seats, seat belts, tray tables, and surrounding areas.  Residue from previous flights can trigger a reaction.
  • Second, make pre-flight announcements requesting passengers to refrain from eating nut products due to passengers with life-threatening nut allergies.  Passengers should be made aware that if nuts are opened and eaten on the aircraft there is a possibility that the plane may need to be diverted from its existing schedule and route to make an emergency landing.
  • Third, establish a nut free section or buffer zone around allergic passengers. (How large that zone needs to be should be determined by nut allergic passenger and flight crew).
  • Finally, carry epinephrine auto-injectors and train flight personnel — 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.

While scientific evidence is not where it should be when it comes to proving that airborne reactions to nuts can occur and can have detrimental results, there is some data that reinforces the health impacts of airborne nut allergies.

Leading food allergy researcher Dr. Kari Nadeau of Stanford, says one has to be careful of saying there is “absolutely no risk” of airborne anaphylaxis given the information we have already.  Nadeau points out that data exists from aerochamber studies that may be helpful in determining the risk of airborne reactions.  During these aerochamber studies, people with allergies breathe in certain particles and wait to see when they get symptoms.  According to Nadeau, one can infer some degree of an allergic reaction in the average food allergy patient on an airplane. (Please see information below for specific data)

In November’s Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology,  Dr. Hugh Sampson, one of the lead authors of “Food allergy:  A practice parameter update – 2014” states “the primary exposure to a food allergen for most patients is through ingestion, although some patients can exhibit symptoms after skin contact or inhalation of aerosolized protein.”

During a taped interview several years ago, Ann Munoz Furlong, the founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (now FARE), discusses the dangers of airborne reactions.  Furlong said individuals have died after inhaling their allergen.  She spoke specifically of one man who died after inhaling shrimp and another girl who died as a result of inhaling chick peas. Munoz said, “if you’ve got people opening nuts on a plane, for some individuals it will cause a reaction.”

Think about the risk of physical exposure to passengers with severe allergies when a passenger is sitting in such close quarters with other passengers.   Case in point, college junior Zac Chelini was sitting at the airport waiting to board his flight when a woman sitting next to him opened a package of trail mix which included nuts.  Chelini says the mix spilled everywhere, including on himself.  He immediately went into anaphylaxis, and had to be rushed to the hospital where he received multiple shots of epinephrine.  One wonders what would have been the outcome of this exposure had he been on a plane at 35,000 feet.  No doubt, he would have been protected from this type of exposure had he been sitting in a buffer zone on an airplane.

One thing we know for certain is that no two allergies are alike, and no two reactions are alike.  We also know that when airlines take the proper precautions, onboard emergencies can be avoided and lives are protected.  Please take action now to create a safer flying environment for all passengers, because even one life lost to anaphylaxis is too many.

By: Amy Wicker

Your Stories

Summer 2015 –

Robin’s Story:  

Before taking a cross-country flight on American Airlines, Robin Van Duren went online to review the airline’s policy on food allergies.  The policy stated that the decision to make an announcement informing passengers about a nut allergy would be left up to crew members.  She was given the same information when she called to book her tickets.  Comfortable that she could get their cooperation, Van Duren bought tickets, arrived at the airport and informed the flight crew at check in.  Once on the airplane, after takeoff, the flight crew refused to make an announcement.  Crew members showed Van Duren their flight crew rule book indicating they could not make an announcement.  The policy shown and verbalized to Van Duren prior to departure differed greatly from what they were now being told.  “The flight attendant whispered to me that she understood how serious the problem was but that the airline had hired people to watch what the flight attendants do.  If she made an announcement she felt she would get fired,” said Van Duren.

To Van Duren and her family, it appeared as though the airline had different policies.  “We felt very unsafe, uncared for and discriminated against.  The gate people basically told us we fly at our own risk and if we don’t think it is safe, then don’t fly,” she said.  Van Duren now questions how they can fly safely when policies are not consistent.

A side note:  AllergySafeTravel has received numerous reports of flight attendants refusing to accommodate nut allergic passengers for fear of losing their jobs.  

Nancy’s Story

Nancy Myrick was caught in a nightmarish flying experience when she took her severely allergic 9-year-old son on a flight from Dallas to San Francisco. As was her custom, she asked if she could board early and wipe down her and her son’s seats in case they had peanut residue. The airline had let her do this on other flights, and since her son had had a reaction on a previous flight where no peanuts were visible, she knew it wasn’t an unreasonable precaution to take.

After some resistance and rude comments by suspicious flight attendants, the crew and ticket manager reluctantly let her board first so she could wipe the seats. Once they boarded, a girl next to them opened a bag of nuts. Myron suggested they move seats. When she asked a flight attendant if they could move, the crew member shot back: “Well, you can just get off the plane and get another flight.”

When the flight attendant called for the ticket manager to come back on the flight, she realized this wasn’t just a suggestion. In the meantime, the girl sitting near Myrick and her son had realized the issue and put away the peanuts, so Myrick suggested that they simply sit back in their original seats. But the ticket manager, refusing to hear anymore, told her to get off the plane.  “All I could do was get my things with my sobbing child and get off the plane.”  Myrick and her son were thrown off the plane very publicly and were told to wait at the doorway for 20 minutes. In the end, they were allowed to get back on board the plane while everyone watched. “I was afraid of missing a flight or getting arrested if I even raised my voice,” said Myrick.

By:  Alexander Nitkin

Airlines That Went Above and Beyond – WestJet

Summer 2015 –

When it comes to accommodating passengers flying with nut allergies, Canada’s WestJet Airlines has set the gold standard.   Since 2011, the company has operated under a unique, well-organized peanut and nut allergy-conscious policy.  The amount of information and detail that they provide passengers with is unparalleled.  From the filtration system to cabin cleaning and food manufacturing processes, WestJet aggressively addresses anything that might trigger on-board nut allergy reactions.    Notable guidelines from the policy include:

  • Carrying epinephrine auto-injectors on board all aircraft
  • Not serving nut-based products to customers (although the airline cannot guarantee that onboard snacks do not contain trace amounts).
  • Requesting that guests seated within two rows of an allergy sufferer not consume food products with nuts
  • Making a public address announcement prior to take-off informing all customers that they are traveling with a peanut or nut allergy sufferer, and asking them to refrain from opening or consuming peanuts or nuts during the flight.

We caught up with the Public Relations Manager for WestJet, Robert Palmer, via email to check in on the success of the four-year-old policy, and to see how Canadian travelers have responded to what might some might consider an inconvenience.

According to Palmer, in 2014, of the nearly 2,100 events on WestJet aircraft that required the services of MedAire, an in-flight medical services provider, only 56 of them were considered serious and allergy-related (about 2 percent). The majority of allergy-related incidents, Palmer said, appear to have been caused by food (usually consumed before boarding), bug or animal bites, interactions with pets or certain cleaning chemicals on board, as well as some miscellaneous cases. Most were treatable by antihistamine or similar medications. WestJet operates approximately 180,000 to 200,000 flights a year, serving about 20 million people.

Here are the highlights of the conversation Allergy Safe Travel had with Palmer:

Allergy Safe Travel: Has WestJet had to make any emergency landings due to allergy-related incidents since you put this policy in place? Have those occurred any less often since you implemented your policy?

Robert Palmer: No. To the best of our knowledge, we’ve never had to divert or make an emergency landing for an allergy-related event, although we do divert aircraft in cases where there are other potentially life-threatening medical emergencies on board (e.g.. heart attacks, strokes, etc.).

AST: What kind of response have you gotten from non-allergic customers regarding this policy? Are they mostly compliant in making sure allergy sufferers are in a safe environment?

RP:   Although we don’t “track” reactions to various policies, it would be difficult to assess with complete certainty the responses we’ve received. Anecdotally, I don’t think we’ve really had any response one way or another, but that is probably due to the fact that we do not serve nuts on our aircraft. Generally speaking, when I fly (50-75 times per year) I don’t see guests bringing them on board very often. This doesn’t surprise me, given the overall heightened public sensitivity around nut-related allergies. There may be some difference between Canada and the U.S. here, since some U.S. airlines still serve nuts and the overall public view may be different.

AST: Have you faced any backlash to this policy from customers? If so, could you describe a particular incident?

RP: No, not to my knowledge. Again, I believe Canadians are accustomed to this heightened awareness.

AST: Is WestJet incurring any sort of extra financial burden from being peanut/nut allergy-conscious?

RP: No, at least not directly. Our strict requirements for our vendors to adhere to our allergy approach likely create more expense for them, however.

AST: In general, is it difficult at any level of the company hierarchy (from executives to flight attendants) to implement such a policy? What are some of the challenges an airline faces when it decides to do so?

RP: WestJet’s corporate culture is one based on care and our approach to allergies is a natural extension of that culture. There was support at all levels of the company when we took this approach.

AST: Has the airline considered expanding this policy to be more accommodating for customers with other allergies?

RP: No, not at this time.

AST: Do you see WestJet as a model that other airlines should follow in this regard, and do you expect your competitors to follow suit with similar policies in the coming years?

RP: No one solution will fit every situation, and what one airline does may not necessarily work for another. We are pleased with our approach, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that others should follow.

Palmer also wanted to add: “One trend I came across that I felt I should mention is the number of allergic guests who did not have their EpiPens with them on board. I was surprised to see how often these guests had put them in their checked baggage, which is obviously not accessible while in flight, rather than in their carry-on baggage. We always recommend that guests who require (or may require) medication always keep it with them.”

WestJet’s full policy can be read at the following link: http://www.westjet.com/guest/en/travel/special-arrangements/special-needs/allergies.shtml

By:  Andrew Brown

Aimee: Our Hero in the Sky

Summer 2015 –

We salute American Airlines flight attendant Aimee of New York for going above and beyond to protect food allergic passengers.  Aimee, who frequently flies internationally, explains to her food allergic passengers that she understands their issues, and she’ll do what she can to help them.  This includes informing passengers who are seated in nearby rows about the individual’s allergy.  Aimee says she’s never had push back from the other passengers, and the food allergic passenger is always appreciative of her efforts.

Aimee understands food allergies first-hand since her son is allergic to dairy and nuts.  She had hoped that she and her family would be able to take frequent trips around the world, but her son’s allergies make that difficult to do.

When it comes to flying with allergies, Aimee says it’s all in the approach you take with the flight crew. “Don’t act like it’s a panic situation.  When you get on the plane, pull a flight attendant aside and calmly explain the situation.  Make sure it’s not during a crazy time,” said Aimee.

This 20-year-veteran says she believes the airlines need to be proactive and work with their food allergic passengers.   “This is about passenger safety and making sure that everyone stays safe while flying,” said Aimee.

AST would like to note that Aimee wished to keep her identity anonymous due to company policies.  We appreciate her candor and hope that one day talking about  going above and beyond to protect an allergic passenger will be encouraged by airlines.  Thanks to Aimee for sharing her story. 

By: Amy Wicker