Peanut Allergy, Air Travel and Public Policy

A friend of mine was recently on a flight. Her son has a peanut allergy. Once she took her seat, she heard an announcement that flight attendants would not be serving peanuts or any other nuts because of a passenger with a food allergy on the flight. All passengers were asked to refrain from eating these products. Afterward, my friend noticed the person next to her opening a bag of trail mix full of nuts. Thankfully, her son wasn’t flying with her that day.

Would a federal law banning peanuts on all flights prevent incidents like these and keep passengers with food allergies safe? Peanut bans and peanut-free buffer zones have been suggested before, dating back to at least 1998, but none of the proposed accommodations for passengers with food allergies have been passed into law. As such, airlines lack consistent policies when it comes to flying with food allergies.

Congress has actually prohibited the US Department of Transportation (DOT) from making rules restricting the distribution of peanuts, unless a peer-reviewed scientific study finds that airborne peanut dust can cause a severe allergic reaction. To date, studies have been conducted, but none have found this link. Therefore, DOT currently has no authority to establish rules with regard to peanuts and airlines (see the infographic I prepared below; you can click on the image for an interactive version with links to the relevant federal laws and notices).

2015 Peanut Allergy and Air Travel

Allergic Living recently interviewed Dr. Matthew Greenhawt about flying with food allergies, after two high-profile cases in which airline passengers experienced severe allergic reactions while in-flight. According to this expert, five studies in the last 10 years have looked at airborne peanut dust. However, none of these studies seem to have found the evidence necessary to fulfill the Congressional mandate in Public Law 106-69.

“…it is highly unlikely for a passenger to inhale nut protein from someone consuming nuts a few rows in front of him/her. There is no evidence that has been able to show that such dust circulates.” —Dr. M. Greenhawt, Research Director, Food Allergy Center and Assistant Professor, Division of Allergy and Immunology, University of Michigan

While this current research should bring some comfort to people with peanut allergy, an open bag of peanuts or trail mix on a plane can be a scary thing, even though the risk may be very low. Also, the Congressional mandate for a peer-reviewed study only focuses on airborne peanut dust, but what about allergens that might linger and accumulate on surfaces within a plane, like tray tables or arm rests, an issue Dr. Greenhawt raised in his interview with Allergic Living. (That’s why Food Allergy Research & Education and others recommend passengers with food allergies wipe down their seat area on the plane.)

Weighing both the evidence and the concerns, why not ban peanuts from all flights? At the same time, we know that even in peanut-free classrooms, people still make mistakes and bring in unsafe foods. Would a peanut ban or peanut-free buffer zones provide a false sense of security? And, how should airlines handle other food allergies?

In my opinion, more consistent policies for all airlines on how to accommodate passengers with peanut or other severe allergies would be an improvement. What do you think? Please share your thoughts in a comment below.

Additional resources:

For a detailed comparison of the various allergy policies of 11 major airlines, Allergic Living has compiled a 4-page chart to help people understand what accommodations they can request and receive.

Finally, there are at least two online petitions related to food allergies and air travel. One of these petitions was started by Elizabeth Goldenberg who authors the Onespot Allergy Blog. Her petition supports a total ban on peanuts. It’s earned over 15,000 signatures. Lianne Mandelbaum authored the second petition I came across last week, and it requires airlines to institute an allergen-free buffer zone for passengers with food allergies. To date, this second petition has earned over 30,000 signatures.

Update: I made revisions to the inforgraphic above on January 19, 2015 to include a key policy action from 2003 that came to my attention after reading The Not-So-Friendly Skies – Allergic Passenger Rights by the Allergy Law Project (ALP). For a more detailed analysis of your rights as an airline passenger with food allergies, I highly recommend you check out ALP’s post.


2 thoughts on “Peanut Allergy, Air Travel and Public Policy

  1. Lianne Mandelbaum says:

    Thank you for this informative and well done write up. I want to add a bit of information. Although there is yet to be a study that fits the DOT criteria, there is a good amount of anecdotal evidence that such reactions are taking place on planes. If you go to my website to the story inventory you can read about a small sect of them. Flying right now is so very dangerous for the food allergic passenger because there is no consistency. Nut protein is robust, it can last up to 110 day, we must be able to pre-clean for cross contamination of surfaces. Pre boarding and announcements should be standard. Crews should make a good faith effort to protect the area around the allergic passengers once notified. If these procedures are standard and carried out, and auto injectors concurrent with training are on every plane; the risk of flying with a food allergy will be greatly reduced. Please sign my petition for food allergic passenger rights and write your legislators
    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue.

    • Heddi says:

      Hello Lianne, Thanks for your kind response and very thoughtful comments. I really appreciate you weighing in on all this. It seems like the procedures you’re suggesting are not difficult ones for airlines to implement, but maybe I’m wrong? Why are elected officials reluctant to make these procedures mandatory for all airlines? I know you are working very hard on this issue. Many thanks, Heddi

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