After ‘The Trip’ – Learning to Fly With Food Allergies

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: July 7, 2022
After ‘The Trip’ – Learning to Fly With Food Allergies
Caroline and family in the Cayman Islands.

What is a trip? It is an act of going to a place and returning; a journey or excursion, especially for pleasure.

A trip is also defined as catching one’s foot on something and to stumble or fall. In my family, we’ve done both.

When our son was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies as a boy, my husband and I promised ourselves that we would not let Alex’s allergies keep him locked away at home. We would continue to travel and have adventures, no matter what. I thought I took as many safety precautions as possible, but I learned the hard way why it’s important to leave no stone unturned.

Once when planning a Caribbean vacation to the Cayman Islands, my husband wanted to use his frequent flyer miles for the three of us to travel business class. As tempting as it was to have bigger seats and be at the front of the plane, I refused because of the likelihood that flight attendants would pass out warm nuts in that section.

The truth is that I didn’t want to disclose my son’s peanut and tree nut allergies to the flight crew. I’d read about situations where people were thrown off planes as flight risks – just for revealing their allergies. I knew that the passengers in the main cabin might bring their own peanut products, but I reasoned that at least we wouldn’t be completely surrounded by everyone eating them, spreading peanut and nut dust everywhere. My husband reluctantly conceded, wanting our son to be as safe as possible.

Peanut Butter Travel Surprise

The flight started off fine; no one was eating peanut products around us. As the business class section snacked on their warm bowls of nuts, I was relieved we had chosen the main cabin.

Unfortunately, that feeling was short-lived. It was as if I’d been happily walking along with the sunshine on my face, then suddenly stepped off a curb, tripping in front of a dozen people. Oof.

Partway through the flight, the passenger sitting directly across the aisle from us took out a large bread bag – full of homemade peanut butter sandwiches! I watched with a sense of dread as she opened and placed a sandwich in front of each of her two toddlers. They proceeded to leisurely eat their peanut butter sandwiches as they watched their small movie screens.

I get it – traveling with toddlers is hard, and snacks and movies are the best ways to make a flight easier. I’m also aware that allergists say most airborne reactions require allergenic proteins to be disturbed (such as with nut dust). But that didn’t help much in the moment.

The overwhelming odor of peanut butter was extremely unsettling. My son put on a mask (this was pre-pandemic) because smelling deadly allergens at 30,000 feet while flying over an ocean is a terrifying feeling.

I knew I couldn’t overreact and upset my son, so I sat in silence, imagining the toddlers’ little peanutty hands touching everything, making those seats a danger for the next passengers who sit there. After what seemed like an eternity, they finished eating, and we were able to relax somewhat. The flight continued and the toddlers continuously ate crackers and other non-peanut snacks to pass the time.

My heart fluttered when the pilot made the announcement that we would be landing in the Cayman Islands soon, and everyone needed to put away their tray tables and place their seats in the upright position. We had made it through the flight and were about to have this unnerving learning experience behind us.

But I celebrated too soon.

Peanut Butter Rebound

With 10 minutes left in the flight, the neighbor lady quietly opened her bread bag and began to hand out fresh peanut butter sandwiches to each toddler again. After everything they had snacked on for hours, I pictured the sandwiches sitting on their laps, being touched but not eaten. This heightened the potential for smearing peanut butter all over.

I couldn’t sit quietly any longer. In my kindest tone, I asked her to please not give her children the peanut butter sandwiches since we were landing so soon. I offered her my entire bag of unopened snacks if her kids were (somehow) still hungry.

To my relief, she glanced toward my son and asked if he was allergic to peanuts. When I responded yes, she agreed she would try to not give the sandwiches, and we could offer her toddlers our snacks if they got hungry during landing.

I thanked her profusely and noticed that she was very understanding and didn’t want our son to be hurt. I deeply appreciated that and regretted not at least trying to speak up when she first took out the sandwiches. Thank goodness, her toddlers didn’t ask for food or even make a sound as they watched their small screens until landing. I have never been so happy to exit a plane in my life!

New Resolve to Speak Up

Alex snorkeling.

The experience of “the trip,” as I refer to that flight with my family, gave me new resolve. I made the decision that we will take every step necessary to ensure that potential allergen exposures while flying don’t happen again.

Since this event, I have never booked a flight without notifying the airline of my son’s peanut and tree nut allergies in advance. Then I tell them again in person when we request pre-boarding to wipe down our seats.

While the peanut allergy is more often accommodated than nut allergies, if we ever have the chance to sit in business class again, I will ask in advance that warm nuts not be passed out. If an airline won’t agree to that, we’ll look for one that will.

Regardless of where we are seated, I make a point to at least ask for an announcement to be made stating there are passengers with peanut allergies. I say passengers (plural) because I firmly believe there are others on the plane sitting silently, too afraid to disclose their allergy.

Not everything is in our control when we travel, but my plan is to continue to embrace life and embrace adventure, while taking all the necessary steps to improve my son’s chances for safety. Kids learn to walk by stumbling, and allergy parents will trip and fall as we navigate this ever-changing world with food allergies.

The secret to success: Keep getting back up!

Caroline Fleur is the author of Destiny and Other Dilemmas, a novel with twists, turns, romance and a dash of food allergy perspective. The former bilingual and special education teacher has a son with multiple food allergies and EoE, and she is dedicated to raising food allergy awareness.

Related Reading:
I Was Silenced About My Son’s Food Allergy, Just to Stay on a Plane
An In Flight Reaction and Then Off to Europe
Peanut Dust Lingers on Airplane Tray Tables, Some Restaurant Surfaces
The Big Tennis Trip: My Teen and His Coach Took the Food Allergy Reins