It can get nutty at 30,000 feet

Mar 11

There are a few versions of this story floating around the net these days. I can tell you that flying with someone with a nut allergy is scary. Our recent trip to Disney Land was well looked after (On the flight there they prohibited handing out nuts and on the flight back they asked passengers to not eat nutty snacks) but I am sure we are the exception.

Many airlines still don’t have policies on in flight food allergens — but should they?

Four years ago, Tammy Duncan was flying en route to Las Vegas when flight attendants began handing out packages of peanuts, to which she is severely allergic.

Duncan, a police dispatcher from St. Catharines, Ont., had wrongly assumed that peanuts were prohibited from all planes. The severity of her situation rapidly became clear: She was trapped in a confined space surrounded by a product that could kill her.

“I can’t even begin to explain how scary that is when you’re thousands and thousands of feet in the air and everybody’s got these bags of peanuts,” she said.

She did the only thing that made sense to her at the time — she took some Benadryl and prayed for the best. She also used a travel Scrabble tile bag as a makeshift air filter — which may sound silly, she said, but it gave her solace in that time of uncertainty. Duncan only suffered a minor allergic reaction, but the ordeal was terrifying.

Laurie Harada, executive director at Anaphylaxis Canada, said that the lack of consistent regulations among airlines with regards to allergies is disconcerting.

“There are concerns about the inconsistency in policies,” she said. “We’ve had reports about passengers being told one thing by one person in the company, only to be advised something different when they arrive at the airport, and then something very different from that when they actually board the airplane.”

Gwen Smith, editor of Allergic Living magazine — whose most recent cover story, “Plane Truths,” highlights the issue — said she continually gets reports from readers who say their allergies are making it extremely difficult for them to travel by air. And she agrees that airlines need to set clear mandates.

“My problem here is that this is up to the individual flight crews,” Smith said. “It’s not policy.”

Another problem is that many airlines are unwilling to refrain from serving highly allergenic foods, claiming it is unfair to passengers, Smith said. That means the risk to allergy-sufferers is higher on a plane than anywhere else.

“Wouldn’t you want it to be lower or at least the same?”

But is all this agitation on behalf of allergy sufferers warranted? Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and associate professor of medicine at Mc-Master University, said that anxiety alone can provoke the symptoms of an attack.

“There are some people who are so anxious about having a peanut reaction that if they smell one from a few feet away, they can start associating it with having an allergic

reaction,” she said. “Most often, the most severe reaction is through ingestion. It’s not through inhaling, and it’s not just from skin contact. It usually involves eating that food.”

While certain types of seafood can release dangerous allergens into the air while they are being cooked, Waserman said that to the best of her knowledge, warming up an already cooked meal — which would be the case on an airplane — presents a minimal risk.

Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard University, recently contended in the British Medical Journal that an overreaction to allergies –nut allergies in particular — is counterproductive and is actually contributing to the problem.

“The cycle of increasing anxiety, draconian measures and increasing prevalence of nut allergies must be broken,” Christakis wrote. He is no longer giving interviews on the topic.

Still, try telling Paige Humphreys, a stay-at-home mom from Edmonton, that she’s overreacting to her severe nut allergy.

She’s had multiple close calls on airplanes when flight attendants began serving nuts.

“If you don’t live it, you just can’t feel it,” she said. “Nobody can tell you that your eyes aren’t swollen and that you’re not nauseous.”

Humphreys, too, has noticed inconsistency in carriers’ policies towards her allergies. On a recent trip to Hawaii, she called Air Canada (which stopped serving peanuts in 1998, but still serves cashews and almonds) months in advance to request that nuts not be served on her flight. Her request was declined by customer service, due to their official stance on the subject as stated on their website: “Air Canada will additionally not stop the planned service of food to which a passenger may be allergic as this would be unfair to other passengers.”

But Humphreys found that certain Air Canada flight attendants were willing to comply with her request anyway, handing out chips or pretzels to passengers instead of nuts. Some wouldn’t and others were downright mean, she said

Allergic Living’s Smith would like to see, at the very least, a consistency so that allergic passengers could know exactly what to expect from flight to flight. She would also like airlines to acknowledge requests for an announcement warning people of a passenger’s severe allergy. If airplanes could reduce their use of the most highly allergenic foods, such as nuts and seafood, the risks could be severely lessened, she said.

Smith finds it absurd that passengers would be overly inconvenienced by the removal of nuts and seafood from flights.

“Really? For one six hour flight over the Atlantic it’s that disagreeable to not have fish?” she said.

Waserman would also like to see airlines take a more serious attitude towards the problem.

“At the end of the day, it’s still ultimately up to the passengers, but yes, airlines could do more,” she said.

via It can get nutty at 30,000 feet .