Sitting with her husband and four children on a Southwest Airlines flight this past March, Chelsia Calvert encountered many mothers’ worst nightmare.
As her family slept beside her, tired from attending a family wedding in South Carolina, she watched as flight attendants passed out bags of peanuts to fellow passengers in the rows ahead of her. Minutes later, her then-9-year-old son Christian began breaking out in hives.
Calvert’s son has life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, as well as a less severe allergy to shellfish. Prior to boarding her flight from Atlanta to Houston, Calvert had taken every step possible to protect her son: She made note of his allergy when booking her tickets, made follow-up calls to remind Southwest LUV, +0.41% of his allergy, and informed the on-ground and in-flight crew when she arrived at the airport.
“They still made the mistake of handing out peanuts,” Calvert said. “It was the scariest thing I have ever experienced.”
Soon after Christian began reacting, Calvert found herself using an EpiPen, the device which administers epinephrine to reduce the symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. It was the first time she had needed to use the EpiPen on her son since she first discovered how severe Christian’s allergy was when he was two years old.
Chelsia Calvert (center middle) experienced many mom’s worst nightmare when her son Christian (center left) had a life-threatening allergic reaction to peanuts on a Southwest Airlines flight.
Though he survived the incident, Christian has since developed a fear of traveling by plane. When the time came to make the annual visit to family in Atlanta this summer, the Calverts opted for a 12-hour drive instead of flying. “He doesn’t want to come close to a plane,” Calvert said of her son. “He’s dealing with high anxiety.”
Thanks to a new policy change, other families with peanut allergies are far less likely to go through what the Calverts endured. Southwest Airlines announced Monday that beginning Aug. 1 it will no longer serve peanuts on any of its flights.
“Our ultimate goal is to create an environment where all customers — including those with peanut-related allergies — feel safe and welcome on every Southwest flight,” the company said in a statement.
The move was met with celebration by food-allergy advocates who have long been pushing for airlines to adopt policies that protect passengers with severe allergies. Indeed, Southwest Airlines was the first to begin serving peanuts on its flights back in 1970, according to the National Peanut Board.
The National Peanut Board said it was disappointed by Southwest’s decision, calling it “an unnecessary step that will disappoint many of Southwest’s customers.”
Others disagree. “It’s forward-thinking of them,” said Lianne Mandelbaum, founder of the food-allergy advocacy website No Nut Traveler. “This is a step in the right direction, but it’s just a step.”
Food allergies are becoming a bigger public health concern
Today, it is estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research and Education, the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to food allergy awareness. Of those 15 million people, nearly 6 million are children.
The number of people with food allergies is growing. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that food allergies became 50% more prevalent in children between 1997 and 2011. Today, one in 13 children has at least one food allergy, and 30% of these kids are allergic to more than one food.
And more people’s lives are being put at risk because of their allergies. The number of emergency room visits among children because of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, jumped 150% between 2010 and 2016, according to a report released in March by Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Passengers with food allergies must grapple with differing policies
While Southwest’s policy change is welcome news to those with food allergies, it doesn’t address the wider concerns of these passengers.
No major U.S. airline guarantees an allergen-free flight. Passengers are allowed to bring food on any flight, so there’s no way to fully prevent allergens from coming onboard and putting someone with food allergies at risk.
It’s the Wild West for people with food allergies, thanks to a lack of regulations regarding how airlines must accommodate passengers with allergies. “Too often, passengers with food allergies receive inconsistent and conflicting information from airline personnel as they book, check in and board,” said Lisa Gable, chief executive of Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit group based in McLean, Va.
Also see: What happens when there’s a medical emergency onboard a flight
Every airline’s policy on food allergies is different. Some airlines will provide special accommodations for passengers with allergies. JetBlue Airways JBLU, -0.16% allows people with food allergies to board early to wipe down their seat and tray table. Additionally, the airline will provide a buffer zone around the food-allergic passenger, and passengers seated in that area will be asked not to consume the allergen. Airline crew will also notify the rest of the plane of the allergy and refrain from serving snacks that contain that allergen.
Those policies have made JetBlue a preferred airline among people with allergies, including Alexander Kaufman, a New York-based 25-year-old public relations specialist who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. “I know there are certain airlines I can’t go on, and I use the ones I’m comfortable with,” Kaufman said. “My allergies definitely pose a struggle when it comes to travel.”
Other airlines, including American Airlines AAL, +0.88% and Frontier Airlines FRNT, +0.00% do not provide special accommodations for passengers with nut allergies, according to their websites. A spokeswoman for American Airlines told MarketWatch that, in very rare circumstances, the company’s ground staff may decide not to allow a passenger on the plane if there is concern about the severity of that person’s allergy.
Frontier’s website states: “Frontier Airlines cannot guarantee an allergen-free environment on its flights. We also cannot prevent passengers from bringing products containing nuts or other allergens (e.g. service animals) onboard our flights.” (Frontier Airlines did not respond to request for comment.)
Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major air carriers in the U.S., declined to comment on individual airlines’ policies, but advised consumers concerned about food allergies to “become familiar with the individual policies of the airline before taking [a] flight.”
Read more: There’s a shortage of U.S. EpiPens and other allergic reaction treatments
Some resort to covering their seats with fitted sheets
Some people with food allergies take additional steps to protect themselves, especially because planes cannot always be thoroughly cleaned between flights. Lizzie Reynolds, a travel agent whose daughter has severe dairy, peanut and tree nut allergies, notifies gate agents and flight attendants of her daughter’s allergies. She then boards when flight staff call for people who need extra time.
During that time, she covers her daughter’s seat with a fitted sheet. Then, she uses pre-moistened wipes to clean arm rests, tray table, window and window shade. Her daughter wears long pants and long sleeves when flying to avoid skin contact and brings her own snacks to eat during the flight. When she leaves the plane, Reynolds puts the sheet and other cleaning items in a plastic garbage bag.
Lizzie Reynolds’ daughter is pictured here sitting on a plane in a seat that Reynolds painstakingly cleaned and covered in a sheet because of her daughter’s severe food allergies.
Not all airlines carry epinephrine auto-injectors
Another area where airlines differ: epinephrine. Typically, airlines will equip their on-plane emergency medical kits with the medication. But many airlines only have it in a vial, meaning it must be administered with a syringe. Flight attendants are often not allowed to administer the medication unless they have medical training. In those cases, the flight crew will need to rely on passengers with medical backgrounds to administer the medication.
As a solution, some airlines — including JetBlue, United UAL, +2.99% Alaska ALK, +1.63% and British Airways IAG, -0.72% — have equipped their plans with epinephrine auto-injectors like the EpiPen MYL, +0.75% These devices are much easier to use than a syringe and require less training.
Don’t miss: FAA declines to put a stop to the ‘incredible shrinking airline seat’
Having fewer airlines to choose from because of these and other policies doesn’t just make booking a trip more difficult for people with food allergies though — it also makes it more expensive. “Food allergy customers are not looking for the best fare necessarily, they’re looking for respect,” Mandelbaum said.
Passengers with food allergies say the airline industry could go even further to accommodate their needs. Reynolds envisions a future where airlines only allow snacks that are free of the “top eight” most common allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish — or don’t serve food at all.
Reynolds does not believe that allergen-free flights are far-fetched. “Remember smoking on planes?” she said. “No one would dream of doing that now.”