OUT OF THE BLUE
One passenger's peanuts are a seatmate's nightmare
By Elliott Hester
while returning from vacation on a flight from London to Boston, I
sat helplessly in a passenger seat while the flight attendants dealt
with an emergency. This particular in-flight crisis had nothing to
do with mechanical failure, weather, or another outbreak of air rage.
The problem was linked to peanuts.
Just before flight attendants completed the main-cabin beverage and
peanut service, a frightened woman leapt from her seat. "You're
not supposed to serve peanuts on this flight!" she screamed.
"I'm allergic to peanuts!" Startled flight attendants stared
in disbelief, wondering if the passenger had gone mad.
As it turned out, the woman was completely lucid. And more importantly,
she was right.
While making reservations for the flight, the woman told the airline
that she 1) suffered from a severe peanut allergy and 2) would be
carrying a prescribed medication (Epipen adrenaline) which could be
self-administered if exposed to peanuts. These two conditions, set
forth by the Air Carrier Access Act (the Federal law governing air
transportation of passengers with disabilities), needed to be met
in order for the airline to accept her medical certificate for travel.
Having met the requirements, the woman boarded our Boston-bound trans-Atlantic
flight. She knew the Department of Transportation requires airlines
to create a "peanut-free buffer zone" (at least three rows
for passengers who document severe allergy to peanuts). But she also
knew that many carriers, including this one, provide an extra measure
of protection. Because she had declared her allergy, peanuts would
not be catered on the flight. If peanuts were mistakenly catered,
or if the airline had made a last-minute equipment change, flight
attendants would refrain from serving peanuts.
It's no surprise then, that the passenger became hysterical when bags
of salted peanuts appeared within a few feet of her seat.
Along with shellfish allergy, peanut allergy is one the most dangerous.
But in most cases, shellfish has to be ingested to cause a reaction.
Peanut allergy is unique in that a person can suffer severe health
complications simply by breathing the air from an open bag of peanuts.
This is particularly worrisome on airplanes because ventilation systems
recirculate cabin air (a fact that questions the concept of a "peanut-free
buffer zone"). An estimated 3 million Americans suffer from this
little-known allergy. The symptoms - which can include severe swelling
of the throat and mouth, vomiting and loss of consciousness - are
referred to as anaphylactic shock. In severe cases it can be deadly.
In 1999, 17-year-old Eric Overlock of Belfast, Maine, died after eating
a sandwich containing peanut oil. Although he wasn't on an airplane
when it happened, the possibility of death or serious illness haunts
many allergy sufferers who fly.
A year after Overlock's death, 4-year-old Rachel Benway boarded a
flight with her mom. According to the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Sherry
Benway spoke to the unnamed airline on six separate occasions before
the flight. She wanted to make sure the company was aware of her daughter's
severe peanut allergy. The airline assured her that peanuts would
not be served on the flight. And peanuts were not served. But the
aircraft had not been properly cleaned, said Benway. "Peanut
particles were everywhere." To make matters worse, passengers
were given granola bars that contained peanut oil. Rachel's condition
is apparently so severe, she even reacts to the AROMA of peanut oil.
While unsuspecting passengers munched on the granola bars, Rachel
began to have difficulty breathing. Benway administered antihistamine
and epinephrine to counteract the symptoms. The 4-year-old survived
the airborne peanut assault, but on the return flight her mom made
adjustments. She passed out her own snacks to nearby passengers, replacing
the harmful granola bars in the process.
Affected passengers need to know that most airlines cannot guarantee
a peanut-free flight. Fellow passengers can't be prevented from bringing
peanut-based food aboard. Airlines are only required to create the
peanut-free buffer zone, which, as mentioned earlier, is not a sure-fire
defense against airborne peanut proteins.
But the buffer zone had not been created on my London-to-Boston flight.
In spite of the passenger's meticulous pre-flight measures, she found
herself surrounded by bags of salted peril. Perhaps reservations failed
to input the proper warning in the passenger's computer record. Maybe
the warning had been filed, but the gate agent failed to inform a
flight attendant. Perhaps the agent informed a flight attendant, but
because of a nasty pre-flight incident, peanut allergies had been
forgotten. (After launching a verbal assault on passengers, cabin
crew and gate agents, a different woman was forcibly removed from
the aircraft on orders from the captain. She had refused to move an
improperly stowed carry-on.)
Still, none of these reasons can excuse the colossal peanut blunder.
No less than 100 bags of salted peanuts had already been distributed
when the allergic passenger leapt from her seat. She may have been
a few breaths away from an allergic reaction that could jeopardize
her health and put the airline in a precarious legal position.
Luckily, the purser came to the rescue. A quick-thinking woman whose
own two children suffer from a rare yeast allergy (she told me this
later in the first-class galley), the purser suspended the peanut
service and rushed the woman to a seat in the forward section of business
class, far away peanuts and peanut oil fumes and airborne peanut proteins.
But what do our premium-class passengers munch on before dinner? As
is the case with many airlines, they feast on almonds. Not peanuts.