Planning to fly the allergic skies?

Mar 16

Travel nerve-racking for parents of allergic kids
Peanuts are a part of snacking culture on planes, but they can be deadly for some people.

Spring break is upon us and families countrywide are preparing for travel.

For most, jumping on a plane with the clan in tow is a relatively uncomplicated, even fun, event.

But for those with a child who has life-threatening allergies (a. k. a. my husband and I), the notion of flying long distance in what is essentially a pressurized metal tube with re-circulated air 12,000 metres above the ground, well, it’s another matter entirely.

It simply can’t be done without some trepidation. Why? Many airlines still serve peanuts and tree nuts, some of the most deadly allergens out there, among their on-board snack selection.

Of course, people like us travel with EpiPens and refrain from consuming these foods. But if, for some reason (nut residue on seats or airborne allergens), a reaction is launched, a dose of epinephrine only temporarily buys time (15 to 20 minutes) before a victim requires proper medical assistance.

To date, we haven’t had to use the EpiPen (knock on wood) — but we know our son’s allergies to peanuts and other nuts are serious given his swift reaction to a small taste of his father’s peanut butter bagel when he was a toddler.

Further medical tests have confirmed his vulnerability.

Parents of kids with allergies — who already feel exposed given the sudden and dangerous nature of serious reactions — understandably feel even more vulnerable during air travel given that it involves hurtling through skies, far removed from any hospital emergency ward.

And so it was with great interest that I stumbled across Allergic Living’s recent cover story, Flying Allergic, on just this topic. The national magazine has begun a campaign to improve airline policies regarding allergic passengers.

“Flying these days is almost like going to a baseball game. What we’re dealing with is entrenched snack culture,” says editor Gwen Smith from her Toronto office.

“Historically, snack culture on airlines has been nuts and peanuts. We need to ask ourselves, why can’t this be changed to pretzels or olives or potato chips?”

Smith points out that advocates in favour of safer sky travel are not talking about “following other passengers to their hotel rooms and badgering them about what they eat. We’re talking about a few hours here, so we can create an environment where everyone can relax, including people with acute food allergies.”

Nobody, she insists, wishes their kids suffered from severe food allergies.

“We’re all Canadians here. We’re not trying to infringe on someone’s space,” she says. For other passengers to refrain from eating nuts in this small, enclosed public space, or for airlines to create policies to protect the food allergic, she insists, is simply about considering the needs of others.

Smith points to WestJet as one of a few airlines leading the charge for allergy-friendly skies. Not only has the Calgary-based airline stopped offering peanuts and tree nuts as snacks, but they even refrain from offering foods that may contain traces of these food contaminants.

“We take this problem very seriously,” says spokesperson Robert Palmer. “It’s impossible for the airlines to create an allergy-free environment, because we can’t control what other people bring on board. But we ask people to self-identify and if someone close to them is consuming nuts, we will ask that person to kindly refrain from doing so.”

So far, he says, so good. But if a passenger confesses to bringing cashews in their carry-on and insists that they plan to eat them anyway, flight attendants are not allowed to order them off the aircraft.

“Honestly,” says Palmer. “We rely on the goodness of people and their common sense to refrain when we ask them to.”

As for railing against “entrenched” snacking culture that features nuts and tree nuts, Palmer argues that people have to adjust to a new reality.

“In a generation, maybe two generations, society has become aware that more and more people have life-threatening food allergies. For us, offering nut-free snacks is not only the respectful thing to do, but it’s also, from a safety perspective, the right thing to do.”

WestJet, a company that flies 13 million people annually, reported three incidences of anaphylaxis last year and only one so far this year.

“Situations like this might not be that common, but they are extremely serious,” says Palmer. “We want people to self-identify when they book, when they check in, at the gate and on the flight.”

Shortly, my family and I will be jumping on a plane for a mini-vacation. As usual, I’ll pack all of the necessary “safe” snacks that my son enjoys, along with a couple of EpiPens.

I will likely have my fingers crossed throughout the trip — as I always do — hoping he doesn’t experience some strange and unpredictable reaction to food particles in our cabin.

Finally, a note of thanks for your tolerance — particularly for that annoying mother who claps enthusiastically when she and her brood land safely at the end of a long flight.

via Planning to fly the allergic skies? .