After being humiliated by an airline supervisor at the front of a full airplane, I decided to file a U.S. DOT complaint. As a leading advocate for airline food allergy accommodations, I have advised others to file one if they faced ill-treatment specifically because of food allergies. Now, it was unfortunately my turn.
What I didn’t expect was an outpouring of media coverage of my complaint to the Department of Transportation. This was both good news and bad. The good – for raising awareness. Many who don’t live with food allergies said they could see my point.
As I explained in the complaint, I’d requested that an attendant tell folks near us on a United Airlines’ flight of my son’s peanut allergy. That request seemed well within the airline’s own policy to offer a buffer zone around the passenger with peanut allergy. Instead, a supervisor scolded me, and I feared I might be removed from the flight.
The bad news of the unexpected media coverage was that food allergy detractors came out in force. What a long way we still have to go in getting the public to understand the seriousness of food allergies!
Many commentators stated that as a food allergy family, we should only drive, take a bus or a train. We should not expect to fly safely. Some claimed they would truly “suffer” by having to put away their chosen snack for a flight. Still others jumped to the conclusion that my complaint was a ploy to “get clicks”.
No, I have no need to get clicks. I have better things to do. I filed the complaint because my No Nut Traveler 501c4 nonprofit works toward achieving fair and consistent food allergy accommodation and treatment throughout the airline industry.
Why I Made an Allergy Airline Complaint
So let me explain my airline complaint, parts of which United denies in a rebuttal to DOT. First, I filed because the accommodation and safety of a child or adult with a food allergy should be based on the airline’s own policy. It should be consistent, and not change depending on the mood and policy education of a particular flight crew.
I also filed because DOT recently released an Airline Passengers With Disabilities Bill of Rights. It describes the rights of air travelers with disabilities under the Air Carrier Access Act. Number 1 on the list – the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
What transpired on that United flight out of Houston was this: we boarded and cleaned our seating area in case of prior allergen contamination. Once all passengers were seated, I asked a flight attendant if she would please alert those in our immediate area that there was someone nearby with a peanut allergy.
She replied that United does not do PA announcements. I clarified that this was not a plane-wide request, but merely a proximity announcement.
I went back to my seat. What happened next shocked me. A supervisor summoned me to the front of the plane. She loudly told me what I was asking for was “illegal”. She went on to tell me, people have a right to eat nuts. I calmly replied this was not “illegal,” that United had done this on the outbound flight from Newark to Houston, and even thanked me for praising that specific crew on social media.
I said I wasn’t asking United to ban nuts on this flight, rather just asking for United to adhere to its policy concerning a passenger with a food allergy.
“What Do You Want to Do Now?”
As I tried to show the supervisor United’s policy on my phone, she put her hand in front of my face. She said she did not care about what I was saying and wasn’t going to look at my phone. She said, “This will not happen, so what do you want to do now?” It appeared from her tone that if I pressed the issue, I’d be asked to leave the plane. So, I backed down.
Once the plane took off, I paid for Wi-Fi so I could tweet about the experience. It upset me that my son was worried that my tweeting could alert United Airlines and this crew. He thought we could face consequences. A recent survey conducted by the Center For Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) showed that passengers with food allergies often hide their condition to not “get in trouble.”
Turns out, United responded to my tweet by sharing a link to its policy. It states: “If you have a severe food allergy and are traveling on a flight, please notify a flight attendant on board the aircraft that you request an allergy buffer zone so we can attempt to notify customers seated nearby to refrain from eating any allergen-containing products they may have brought on board.”
My request was well within those guidelines. Their link was exactly what I’d attempted to show the supervisor. I stared at my screen in disbelief.
Complaint Coverage and Hate Mail
DOT will now consider my complaint alongside United Airlines’ rebuttal. The airline denies any discriminatory behavior and says they can’t know how I “was feeling”. They also stated in their response that “United is without knowledge as to the physiology of allergy and allergic reaction, and as to what extent those conditions may affect major life activities.”
Yet, DOT has made it clear in other complaints that it recognizes food allergy as a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act. In one complaint against American Airlines, the department found the rights of a young girl with food allergies were violated when her family wasn’t allowed to pre-board to clean the seating area.
No one has control over what the passenger ate who sat in the seat before the food allergy passenger. But we can pre-board to wipe down this area. In the same vein, alerting those in our immediate area is a reasonable ask.
Human beings are messy when they eat. Folks have reported to my website seeing other passengers shelling nuts, squeezing nut butters out of packets, spilling yogurt and touching all the surfaces including armrests.
With the wide media attention to my DOT complaint, I have received hateful emails – some calling me an entitled “Karen”. Numerous social media posts say that by asking flight crew to inform those around us of my son’s peanut allergy, I’m a helicopter parent. Surely, my son will grow into a weak man.
I beg to differ. It is not a weakness to speak up for yourself to stay safe. It is a strength. Those with food allergies learn to how to advocate for themselves at a young age – a hard skill for even seasoned adults. People with food allergies do this out of necessity to stay alive, healthy and safe. My son has turned down many well-intentioned adults (including teachers) who have offered him an unsafe snack. I am proud of the strong person he has become.
Media Circus over Allergy Complaint
The media coverage of my complaint began with an airline industry blog called Paddle Your Own Kanoo. (This blogger follows DOT complaints.) Then Business Insider contacted me for information. Next thing I knew that story was on Yahoo, Apple News, and then Good Morning America interviewed me. That interview about my complaint got picked up by the New York Post and internationally.
Interestingly, that initial post by Paddle Your Own Kanoo stated that the United Airlines buffer zone policy for peanut allergy was widened soon after a plane heading to Singapore from San Francisco was diverted to Hawaii. The September 2022 diversion occurred because of a passenger’s reaction to nuts or peanuts. Previously, a buffer zone on United could only be requested on Canadian routes because of Canadian airline regulations. So, it seems that United does have some direct experience with in-flight allergic reactions, despite what their rebuttal to my complaint may or may not indicate.
As for the wide coverage my complaint received, I hope it will lead some passengers without allergies to understand food allergy needs better. Less hopeful were those knee-jerk, negative Tweets and posts. I was baffled to see this allergy mom’s DOT complaint lead to such a media circus. Simply put, it was just “nuts” to watch.
Lianne Mandelbaum is Allergic Living’s airlines correspondent, and the founder of NoNutTraveler.com.