Amtrak’s Unaccompanied Minor Policy Explicitly Excludes Food Allergic Youth

If you think I talk about Food Allergies all the time here, imagine how my friends feel!  A friend from law school, Ali, wrote to me that though her daughter doesn’t deal with food allergies, she saw this policy on Amtrak’s website and was disturbed that a food allergic minor would not be permitted to ride Amtrak alone while one without food allergies might be allowed to do so.

Their site simply states:

The unaccompanied child may not have any life-threatening food allergies.

I have written to Amtrak to inquire about this policy but have not yet received a response.  If I do, I will be sure to update this post.  The full policy, with the allergy reference highlighted, is below:

If I were to speculate, there’s a lot implied here.  My mind first goes to the thought that food allergic children have to be more responsible and aware versus non-allergic children (source).  On the other hand, the teen years are notorious for risk taking behavior (source).  I am not sure that Amtrak is weighing either of these considerations in their policy, however.  They could simply want to delegate responsibility for a minor with food allergies to the individual accompanying them.  Or, to take it a step further, from reading their other statements regarding food service and nuts (source), they are taking the approach many of us have experienced where a restaurant or other location just turns a food allergic individual away without attempting basic accommodation.  As I stated, though, this is speculation.  Their automated system kept kicking me back to their dining policy and customer service e-mail has gone unnoticed thus far.

Most of all, I was not sure how to respond to my friend.  She thought it was outrageous to have such a restriction.  Here in Las Vegas we don’t really have this sort of transportation – is it common for a teen to ride a train unaccompanied in the United States?  Does Amtrak require disclosure of allergies upon ticket purchase?  To buy an unaccompanied minor ticket it seems that one has to call in and not use the online system at the outset.  To interview a child at the station to determine the ability to ride alone (included in the above policy) but exclude from that determination whether they could adequately manage their own food allergies for the duration of travel seems to attach a strict liability concern for Amtrak.  That is to say, is the act of a teen with food allergies traveling alone patently risky to the point where Amtrak cannot allow it – or such that they would point to the policy as a defense if something did happen to a teen with food allergies traveling alone?  And what of allergies that present for the first time without prior warning?  There is a push in many states already to move stock epinephrine beyond schools and onto public transportation and in restaurants (read more about Nevada’s efforts here).

The American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA for short) of 1990 established that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” 42 U.S.C. § 12182(a) (2000).  A disability under the ADA “means, with respect to an individual– a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2).  Arguably, food allergies, though something that can be mitigated through avoidance, impact the major life activity of eating and are covered by the ADA.  Here, I’m sure the response by Amtrak would be that the person wanting to travel could do so, albeit accompanied.  They’d try to look at the age restriction as the reason for a limitation and not at an outright discrimination based on allergy.  It certainly bears more investigation/research into the current state of disability law in the United States.  And of course none of this is legal advice or anything, I’m just wondering if this is simply a policy that has gone unnoticed or unchallenged.  My area of practice as a Nevada attorney doesn’t run to this area of law, I deal largely with elder exploitation and guardianship day-to-day, but my interest is definitely piqued by issues such as these.  (See also: my post about labeling)

My knee-jerk reaction would be that if, say, a 14 year old meets all other requirements Amtrak has for unaccompanied travel and also happens to have food allergies, I can’t see why they should not be allowed to travel alone.   What are your thoughts?  Does this strike you as a discriminatory policy?  Is this a policy that protects the potential unaccompanied youth with food allergies or does the protection run to Amtrak alone?  At what age would you be comfortable with your child, food allergic or not, traveling alone?

14 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this, Homa! I’m very interested to hear what people have to say. Another interesting thing to note–I peeked at SWA’s unaccompanied minor (UM) policy just now out of curiosity, and it’s silent as to food allergies. UMs on SWA are just 5-11 years old–much younger than on Amtrak (not to mention, peanuts are being served…although as a side note, I’ve been on SWA flights that suspend peanut service b/c someone with a severe peanut allergy is on board–I love SWA). I hope Amtrak changes this. Thank you for raising awareness!

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  2. I can see how Amtrak might not want to take on the liability of agreeing to care for a child who might have an emergency while on board. Maybe it’s a staffing issue? They agree to take a child that may need special care and then don’t have anyone available to keep an eye on the child or to assist with medication in an emergency?

    It’s very oddly specific, though…there’s no mention of excluding children with diabetes or feeding tubes or any other disabilities or special needs. Why allergies? I wonder if Amtrak didn’t have an “incident” where a child with allergies had a reaction and didn’t have an epi, or if they found themselves facing a lawsuit from a family with a food allergic child and decided not to take the legal risk anymore?

    It will be very interesting to see how they respond, if they even do. A couple of years ago someone used my bank account to take a train all around the Midwest, and Amtrak didn’t even respond to my bank’s fraud report and request for proof of payment. They also ignored my “Why are you selling tickets to people without verifying ID and therefore violating TSA policy?” letter. Based on that experience, I got the impression Amtrak wasn’t very customer-friendly.

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  3. Do they have a similar statement about teens with diabetes, I wonder? Another thought–I graduated from high school at age 17. Upon graduation, I regularly traveled to Montreal (where I attended college) via AMTRAK, thought I was then 18. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a 17 year old to take the train unaccompanied. I have very mixed feelings about AMTRAK’s policy. Thanks for this thought provoking post.

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    • I think they treat the hypothetical 17 year old differently because some portions of the policy refer to the 13-16 age range. Even so, where does one draw the line on responsibility and why single food allergies out instead of other conditions that could give rise to medical emergencies? Or a child with asthma that carries an inhaler? I can see that they’re not going to keep a car nut free or the like, but to allow some children to travel alone and not permit others solely based on one having no food allergies and the other suffering from them…very odd. Thank you for the praise, Jennifer, it means a lot coming from someone I respect so much!

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  4. I think that the spirit of the Amtrak policy is related to one’s ability to self-administer, if necessary. I know that my 7-year-old son would be too freaked out and scared about what what happening to him to be clear-headed enough to self-administer (the last time we had to use his auto-injector, he was only 2 and doesn’t remember it). Another thing to take into consideration would be the ability of the UA to adequately communicate what is happening, should they have an exposure. I know it may seem like I am giving Amtrak the benefit of the doubt here, but I have found that the general population is SO uneducated about food allergy issues and how to handle them that they basically rely on those of us in the front lines to handle anything that may happen. Finally, within the travel industry, I can understand flight attendants and airlines having better training in dealing with food allergy exposures simply based upon the difficulty one would have at being able to get to an ER or seek professional medical attention within the recommended 15 minutes if one is at 36,000 feet when one must inject. Just some thoughts.

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  5. Wow! I am shocked and saddened to read that line!

    After more thought, I can understand why Amtrak would feel the need to have this policy, even if I don’t like it. Managing food allergies appropriately takes a lot of education and responsibility that not all children or adults possess, even the ones with the allergies. I am sure it is because of this and liability issues that the company feels the need to protect themselves.

    It saddens me that my child, and children like him, have a medical problem that can be difficult and, at times, scary to manage. It is also a medical problem that can require supervision and immediate assistance from another willing person during a severe reaction. It’s important to recognize that not everyone is equipped with saving our children’s lives, whether we like it or not. I certainly would not want anyone that is not comfortable managing my son’s food allergies to be responsible for him in an emergency. However, by the time my son is 17 (and much younger) he will be very well educated and prepared to self-inject, if needed, but that is not the case for all teens with food allergies and that is what we need to change.

    Maybe this policy is a good reminder to all of us parents to better prepare and educate our children (with food allergies) to protect themselves and to self-inject. If those with food allergies were better prepared, I wonder if this company would still feel the need for this policy?

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    • Thank you so much for the comment, Elizabeth. I am aware that some places don’t even allow children to self carry so it makes sense to look at the question of self administration for minors as well. I think if we don’t look at the specific circumstance of an allergic emergency on a train but the singling out of food allergies over other medical problems the discussion becomes a little bit easier. Of course we all put ourselves in an imaginary parent’s shoes that might face this policy. The law contemplates that sometimes it is hard to include individuals with extraordinary circumstances, but simply giving up to protect from liability is not a viable option either. Under the ADA a balancing analysis does take place where if an entity can’t accommodate and remain viable financially, say a small day care that can’t store insulin or have staff to administer it through the day without incurring such an expense they would not keep afloat, they may not end up being forced to alter a policy with a discriminatory effect. Here we have a policy that singles out food allergies alone and it looks like it violates laws in place to protect food allergic, and other, individuals from discrimination. I do like your idea that the more we do to empower our kids, the easier we make it for them to be included because there is some self-policing going on. I’d like to think that if a parent knew their child would be at risk for a reaction on a train they wouldn’t opt for that, but merely having food allergies shouldn’t bar a case by case look at whether someone can take that trip. I really like your point about not everyone being equipped to act in a life saving way. You’re a compassionate soul, one of the things I really like about you!

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  6. I can’t speak to the allergies but I traveled Amtrak alone extensively when I was in high school (13 – 17). I just got a normal ticket at the automated machine like everyone else, and no one ever asked me who I was with, if I had any allergies, etc. Granted that was over a decade ago, but as someone who still takes Amtrak regularly I don’t think it’s changed much over the years.

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    • Thank you, Kelly! It is great to hear from someone who traveled Amtrak alone as a teen – some people have been commenting to me that they don’t think teens should travel alone and it didn’t seem too out of the realm of normal for me. I understand that about 2 years ago Amtrak’s liberal unaccompanied minor policy did change across the board but it seems to refer to online tickets or calling in for tickets so I wonder if they have kiosks and the like where it wouldn’t come up.

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  7. Pingback: Food Allergies and Travel in Recent News | Oh Mah Deehness!

  8. Pingback: UPDATE: Suit Filed against Amtrak re: Unaccompanied Minor Policy’s Exclusion of Food Allergic Youth | Oh Mah Deehness!

  9. Pingback: Amtrak Quietly Changes Their Unaccompanied Minor Policy | Oh Mah Deehness!

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