Airline Disability Inequities
Most often someone purchasing a flight is determining which flight to take based on factors such as the number of stops, the cost, and the dates available. For people with disabilities and life-threatening food allergies, the decision isn’t always based on those same criteria.
I have a deadly peanut allergy and carry 4 epi-pens on me at all times for it in addition to antihistamines. It’s important to note that there’s no guarantee that epinephrine will save my life if I have an allergic reaction, and the only prevention of having a reaction in 2022 is by avoidance of the allergen. There’s no cure for food allergies or known cause.
I don’t feel comfortable riding on an airplane if peanuts will be passed out, and I have a hierarchy of various airline and travel accommodations that make me feel more or less comfortable. I take these food allergy accommodations into consideration first instead of ideally sorting them by price, which would be the most important factor to me if I didn’t have a food allergy. Often I notice that I’m taking more expensive airlines and flights, due to avoiding excessive air travel and specific airlines such as Delta, Southwest, or American Airlines as of 2022. I’m not saying I absolutely won’t fly with them, but my airline preferences change as airlines decide to change and update their disability policies. I’ll get into those policies below.
An Overview: Airline Food Allergy Timeline
Southwest Airlines – 1971-2018: In 2017 alone, Southwest airlines served more than 106 million peanuts, according to their website. When the budget airline began in the early 1970s, in order to offer low airfare, Southwest didn’t serve in-flight meals and instead provided “peanut flights”. They started this trend by saying, “you fly for ‘peanuts,’ and so peanuts are what you get.” Other airlines served peanuts before and have since, but Southwest embraced this and was the first airline to serve only peanuts, as a marketing tactic.
Continental, United, American, and JetBlue Airlines – March 2011: By March of 2011, the airlines Continental, United, American, and US Airways eliminated peanuts and other free snacks from their flights, to save themselves an estimated $2.5 million per year. The airlines still stocked food and peanuts on board but charged for it instead.
Continental, United, American, and JetBlue Airlines – 2010: In response to several complaints and a food allergy lawsuit or two, some airlines decided to stop stocking peanuts, and in 2010 the Department of Transportation even tossed around the idea of implementing an industry-wide ban on the life-threatening peanuts due to a rise in peanut allergies and being disproportionally more deadly than other top allergens. Sadly, the ban didn’t sprout legs, because the DOT found that a prior law required it would need to conduct a peer-reviewed study before being able to pass it. Still, several airlines, including Continental, United, US Airways JetBlue, and American Airlines, voluntarily stopped serving packaged peanuts, in order to avoid further complaints.
In 2022, based on these top airlines’ websites, these airlines do not serve peanuts as a free snack. However, they don’t do much for those with food allergies in terms of protection. For example, although United has stopped serving packaged peanuts to passengers, they still serve mixed nuts in Business class. The United Airlines website also indicates they will not offer “buffer zones” to those with peanut allergies, as some other airlines do. Southwest Airlines – July 2018: Southwest stated, “Southwest will stop serving peanuts on all flights to protect people with allergies.” This was a win for the allergy community seeking accommodations.
Delta Airlines – July 2018: The next week after Southwest Airlines’ announcement, Delta announced they were bringing their peanuts back?! Whomp whomp! What a whirlwind. I took this decision by Delta as an offensive attack on the food allergy community. It’s statistically backed that food and peanut allergies are more common than ever before, so this decision to bring back a top deadly allergen really seemed unethical. As far as I can tell, Delta received a lot of backlashes but never retracted their decision, it looks like on the Delta website as of October 2022, they still serve peanuts but do allow pre-board and will switch snacks out for the specific flight as long as you notify them within 48-hours in advance. If you’re flying Delta with a peanut allergy, you may want to choose a different airline.
American Airlines – June 2019: According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), American Airlines (AA) violated a food allergy family’s rights in 2019 when they were refused the right to preboard. DOT does consider food allergies to qualify as a disability under the ACAA. American Airlines has been most often in news headlines around kicking passengers off flights with food allergies. I avoid American Airlines airline the most due to this. Here are recent examples of American Airline’s discrimination, so you can see why:
Woman thrown off American Airlines flight over nut allergy so first class could get ‘contractual’ mixed nuts
- Family Kicked Off American Airlines: “My son has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts and tree nuts”
- Travelers With Nut Allergies Clash With Airlines
Southwest Airlines – October 2022: Southwest decides their disability pre-board accommodations no longer apply to peanut and food allergy travelers. This created an uproar in the food allergy community, understandably so, as it’s a preventative practice to be able to wipe down the area and potentially choose a seat less contaminated, and additionally to be able to more easily notify the airline crew and staff of their allergy and seat number. According to multiple news sources, this decision is potentially putting Southwest in legal discrimination trouble, as it should. If you’re flying Southwest with a peanut allergy, you may want to think again and choose another airline.
How To Contact Each Airline Regarding Flying With Allergies
Below I’ve consolidated information from a Travel Market Report and a VeryWellHealth article detailing how each airline handles peanut allergies/food allergies, & their contact information and social media for easy reference and ability to contact them and/or leave feedback and comments to the public as of 2022:
American Airlines – Phone: (800) 433-7300 – American Airlines Facebook & Customer Support
Allergy Policy: American Airlines does not serve peanuts in-flight, but does serve other nuts, which may contain traces of peanuts. The airline can not guarantee that a flight will be peanut-free, will not grant requests for a particular flight to be peanut-free, won’t provide a peanut-free “buffer zone” for allergic customers, and won’t allow pre-boarding for seat and tray table wipe-downs.
Special Meals: American Airlines offers gluten-free, diabetic & vegan (dairy-free) meals for some flights, which must be booked in advance.
Delta Air Lines – Phone: (800) 221-1212 – Delta Airlines Facebook & Customer Support
Allergy Policy: Delta will refrain from serving peanuts on your flight if you notify them at least 48 hours before the flight. Cabin service will be instructed to carry additional non-peanut snacks that can be distributed to all passengers onboard. Delta will allow you to pre-board and sanitize your seat. On the day of travel, the peanut-allergic passenger should notify the gate attendants. Delta notes that it cannot guarantee the flight will be peanut-free.
Special Meals: Delta lists the name-brand snacks served on short flights on its website. Some of these snacks contain nuts. Gluten-free, diabetic, vegetarian, and vegan meals are available for longer flights. You must request a special meal at least 48 hours before departure.
JetBlue Airways – Phone: (800) JETBLUE (538-2583) – JetBlue Airways Facebook
Allergy Policy: JetBlue does not serve peanuts onboard, but does serve other nuts and other food items, which may be cross-contaminated with peanuts. The airline says it cannot prevent other passengers from bringing nuts or peanuts onboard the aircraft. On request, JetBlue will create a three-row buffer zone around you and ask that passengers in that zone do not eat any nuts. JetBlue also will offer a full refund to passengers whose allergies make it impossible for them to travel.
Special Meals: Jet Blue lists in-flight snacks on its website, and offers a limited selection of boxed meals, none of which are allergen-free.
United Airlines – Phone: (800) UNITED-1 – United Airlines Facebook & Customer Support
Allergy Policy: United does not serve peanuts or foods cooked in peanut oil on flights. However, they do serve prepackaged foods that may be cross-contaminated with peanuts. The airline notes that it’s “not possible” to prevent other passengers from bringing peanut-containing snacks on board, but says that flight attendants “may be able to pass along your request to other customers seated nearby to refrain from opening or eating any peanut products that they may have brought on board.”
Special Meals: Gluten-free and vegan (dairy-free) meals are available on some flights. Special meals must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance.
Southwest Airlines – Phone: (800) I-FLY-SWA – Southwest Airlines Facebook
Allergy Policy: Southwest does not serve peanuts in-flight, but offers other complimentary snacks. On the Southwest.com website, passengers can note the peanut allergy under “Add/Edit Disability Assistance Options.” Southwest suggests booking early-morning flights since the planes are cleaned at the end of the day and will be at their cleanest in the early morning. The airline recommends that allergic passengers check in at least one hour prior to boarding. Passengers will be provided with a “Peanut Dust Allergy Document” to present to the flight crew onboard, which will notify the crew not to serve peanuts. As of October 2022, Southwest’s peanut allergy preboard is no longer an option for the public. They have limited their airline accommodations for disabled individuals.
Special Meals: Southwest does not serve full meals, but does serve in-flight snacks.
Keep Your Life-Saving Epinephrine On You At All Times During Air Travel
In case you didn’t know, epinephrine auto-injectors and solid and liquid antihistamines are exempt from the TSA 3-ounce limit on liquids/weight. I keep my epinephrine injectors and Benadryl on me at all times with my passport/ID, so I can let the airline know it’s with me in my seat in the event of an allergic reaction, and let them know my seat number.
Additionally, I often wear a mask on airplanes during air travel. I talk about why I love wearing a mask more in-depth in this Invisibly Allergic blog article. I’ll for sure wear a mask if the airlines are not accommodating and if they will not make an announcement to refrain from people eating peanut products on the flight. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. The reality is that those with life-threatening food allergies lives are in the hands of the random crew members for each individual flight and their mood to accommodate that day. A mask doesn’t ensure my safety but is one tool that can help preventatively.
I will say, even though medications like epinephrine and Benadryl don’t need to be specifically left out to get through security, I keep all my medication in one bag, so I can find it quickly, and will keep it with my wallet and phone and put it through the X-ray machine together so I can get it back together and not forget or lose them.
Handing Out Allergy Cards On Your Flight
This may be something food-allergic individuals commonly do or don’t do, I’m not sure, but it’s something I’ve done in the past and have recently gotten away from doing but think it’s a completely valid option to try! Much like a chef allergy card, I would create one specific to my peanut allergy and when I would pre-board, I would wipe my seat and then pass out the slips of paper I printed that state something like, “Hello, someone sitting nearby has a life-threatening peanut allergy, if you don’t mind refraining from eating peanut products it would be appreciated.”
When I’ve traveled on airlines that do not provide accommodations, I’ve never been stopped from handing these out, but I also do not ask. I just confidently place them and sit back in my seat. I’ve been asked by flight attendants about them before, but no one has ever removed them. I do find them an effective way to let others nearby you know about your allergy, which is especially helpful if I’m traveling alone. If I have a family member or friend with me, they can help me advocate for myself in ways I can’t when I’m by myself.
I’ve printed them in multiple languages, for example, when I went to Belgium I printed these cards in English, French, Dutch, and German. However, I’ve found the cards came most in handy in domestic travel within the U.S., because in my experience, most international flights are happy to make an announcement about people refraining from eating peanuts on board and keeping flights peanut-less.
A Stress-Free Airline Travel Checklist
A lot goes into traveling with a life-threatening food allergy. However, I hardly think about it now since I know how to plan for travel, and I would say about 50 percent of the time I have a fairly effortless travel experience if the airline and flight crew are accommodating.
It is stressful and scary putting my life in the hands of others who may or may not care about it, and that’s a reality of living with a food allergy in general.
Here’s a checklist to help have stress-free travel:
Bring safe snacks, lots of them
Keep your medication on you at all times
Bring a mask you can wear
Bring wet wipes to wipe your surroundings at the airport and on the airplane
Bring your own water bottle to drink from
Alert the airline crew of your seat # so they know where you’re seated and that you have epinephrine on hand due to your food allergy, and remind them of your food allergy
Request to pre-board, and request if the airline will make an announcement for passengers to refrain from eating your allergen on the flight. This doesn’t mean the airline will honor the request, but it’s worth a try!
When Passengers and Airline Staff Are Disrespectful Towards Those With Disabilities
There’s a lot of hate towards people requesting and requiring food allergy accommodations. In response to all the negative comments from the public around peanuts and nuts not being allowed on flights any longer, or provided as a free snack, here’s what I have to say:
The short amount of time people are inconvenienced that a snack they like isn’t allowed is nothing compared to living unsupported every day with a life-threatening food allergy. You won’t die without the specific snack, but others could die from it being present. You can’t make everyone happy, and it’s not about happiness, it’s about safety and valuing other people’s lives.
Often people will get angry about not being able to eat their peanuts or almonds, and it seems they have lost sight of the goal we’re all trying for: to travel. The main objective is to be flown from point A to point B, right? So then why if there is even a 1% chance that someone on the plane may have an allergic reaction and die or need to be emergency landed due to a food preference (something completely avoidable) do people take that chance? Dwelling on this will only make me sad, but I wanted to point this out in case this helps someone else stand up for themselves and helps someone with a food allergy not feel like a burden. Because people with food allergies aren’t burdens and are important.
The No Nut Traveler, a website dedicated to food allergies, has a tab on its site where you can share your own food allergy airline story. The stories are tracked, because as the No Nut Traveler explains, “if we don’t record our testimonials of traveling with a food allergy, it’s as if they never happened” and I fully agree! I’ve submitted my airline horror stories here in hopes they will create positive changes for the future.
As I’m typing this and looking at the airlines’ websites and mission statements, it is reminding me how ridiculous it is that major airlines can just decide they won’t accommodate a disability, isn’t it? Thinking about wheelchairs being broken during air travel and other accommodations that aren’t respected by these airlines is extremely maddening. It’s hypocritical since all these airlines state on their sites something along the lines of, “Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.” This is completely untrue, yet, that is what United and others have plastered all across their sites and in their email signatures.
Give Airlines Your Feedback
I’m hugely in favor of letting airlines know what you like and don’t like. If enough people speak up, resist and boycott and explain why they’re doing so, this will add pressure on the airline to make positive changes for customers. While there are no peanut-free airlines, truly, you can see there are some airlines doing a better job accommodating flying with food allergies than others.
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Love your articles! I recently flew Delta and they were serving peanuts and almonds. As you know I’m only allergic to tree nuts and do not have an airborne allergy but it still made me SO uncomfortable being in such a small space and having to share my air with a food that could potentially take my life. I’ll always back you up on this!
Thanks for reading! It’s so unnecessary to have any nuts or common allergens present on flights where the air is recycled and it’s a closed environment. I definitely urge you to share this feedback with airlines if you’re comfortable. Hope you’ve been doing alright in regards to your allergy and in general! 💘 I’m always here to talk!