Food Allergies and Travel in Recent News


Air Travel

A news story recently made the rounds about a young girl who experienced her first ever anaphylactic reaction, after previously having no allergies, on an airplane bound from Ireland to the United States. (Source: “Crew use Epi-Pen to save girl on plane” – Irish Independent, August 5, 2014)  People in the food allergy community were thrilled that (1) the girl was saved by quick action (remember: epinephrine is the priority in an allergic emergency, NOT antihistamines) and (2) perhaps the story would bring awareness and compassion from the general public regarding nuts and travel.

That was in early August and this morning I saw this article: “Family of nut allergy girl are removed from flight” – Irish Independent, August 20, 2014.  I’m going to sidestep the European press’ penchant for calling someone a “nut allergy girl” as I’ve mentioned before that I agreed with Marketing Mama that “girl with nut allergies” is more appropriate.

Here’s the basic timeline:

On or around August 5, 2014 – Diagnosis of food allergy via first anaphylactic reaction

On or around August 20, 2014 – Removal from flight home due to request that nuts not be served

From the article:

The family had been able to, it seems, make it to the United States for their holiday after the initial flight had been turned around owing to their daughter’s anaphylaxis and were trying to return home to Dublin this week:

 On the return flight back to Dublin after their holiday, the family again asked the airline not to serve nuts, the child’s mother explained.

“But that seemed to be a big issue because this was part of the United service and they said they didn’t advertise themselves as a ‘nut-free airline’,” she said.

“We were only going to discommode 10 other people because we were all in first class. They asked the other people but then a simple request seemed to turn into a big production. “

The couple and their child were then asked to get off the flight and were accommodated in a hotel for the night while the child’s aunt and grandparents travelled home.

The couple flew home the following morning after the airline agreed not to serve any nuts.


The article indicates United doesn’t serve nuts but that they can’t make guarantees about the conduct of other passengers or make assurances about whether food served “may contain” nut products.  I know families living with food allergy will see what is wrong with this picture but I am seeing more and more the default response from the general public that would exclude the person with the allergy instead of the thing that puts them at risk.  Of course no one can guarantee anything, even families dealing with food allergies are the ones that make missteps sometimes, after all.

This latest story comes at the heels of one about a four year old girl that has a documented nut allergy and experienced anaphylaxis.  Purportedly a warning had been issued on a plane about not consuming nut products during the flight.  (Source)  I can’t find much to back up some of the hyperbolic reports about what happened – for example some have said that the passenger did not understand English fully and was not maliciously consuming nuts after being warned not to do so on RyanAir.  Stories seem to corroborate that anaphylaxis occurred and that the passenger eating the nuts was banned from the airline for two years.

I get the liability jargon people bandy about, I’m a lawyer.  In the same way “free speech” is misunderstood, we have to get some things straight about liability and discrimination and what it means when common carriers (entities that transport people) discriminate.  I’m also a “food allergy mom.”  While I am grateful that my child’s main defense (besides epinephrine, of course) is avoiding her allergens, I am saddened that a child that is barely a month into life as someone with food allergies would have to be subjected to discrimination.  When I wrote about Amtrak’s unaccompanied minor policy, many did say they could see why Amtrak wouldn’t want to deal with allergies, or that they don’t have the staff for an emergency.

Certainly a plane over the Atlantic is not the place to have a reaction, but the family in this story’s experiences match what I hear from people in my local food allergy parent group and online at large.  Sometimes they call ahead, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the note that indicates a pre-boarded passenger has a food allergy reaches one attendant and not the other, sometimes a family that scrambles to get the morning flight home because planes are more likely to be clean at that point finds a cashew on the floor in front of them… the list goes on.  And while we’re at it, how cool would it be to have stock epinephrine on airplanes and trains?  But I digress…

Our first and only air travel with our daughter was already planned when we got her allergy diagnosis and mere days after we met our first attempted allergist (finally found one that worked with us as a team years later on our third try).  We had her carseat on the plane and it was a quick trip to Monterrey, California to see my brother out at the Defense Language Institute.  I remember carrying her epinephrine and her epinephrine prescription to show security just in case there were issues but I didn’t know anything about how to handle other aspects of the trip.  We made it fine both ways but I know exactly how in a daze the family in the news story must feel.

Henry Ehrlich wrote a post recently about food in doctor’s office waiting rooms.  Granted, doctor’s office waits can be as long as an airplane trip, but it brings home that we are a society that is constantly eating.  I know there are medical conditions that require people to maintain their blood sugar and I’m not advocating going food free when people travel, but I wonder to myself how we need to frame this discussion.  What are we, as a community, asking for?  For every person that would love to see a general airline nut ban, there’s another within our own community that copes with a severe milk or other allergy that would like to be able to travel further than a car ride away.

My parenting style has evolved to the conclusion that we can’t adapt to situations if we don’t employ critical thinking instead of hard line rules.  “Never cross the street alone” doesn’t help a child in a situation where maybe crossing the street alone is the safest option.  Teaching them to watch out for cars, to understand what a car’s lights look like when it is backing up and to understand that the driver simply may not see them prepares them for situations we can’t anticipate.  The same goes for an airline defaulting to making no promises about the safety of passengers as they relate to allergens such as nuts.  How do we equip a gate agent, or other decision maker, with the tools that will make them feel empowered instead of fearful of a family traveling with food allergies?  Like many questions I am apt to ask, I don’t have an answer, but this is what I do know:

1) Allergies are on the rise and are here to stay.

2) People have a right to travel, go to school, and more even though they have life-threatening allergies.

There is a lot of violence as well as hardship in the world and I have lots of opinions about a lot of things, so please don’t view this discussion as diminishing the struggles of people at home and abroad against violence and prejudice.  Yes, in the grand scheme is it terrible that I can’t just buy a plane ticket on the cheapest airline and take my family on a trip but there are plenty of reasons people travel that aren’t for a holiday, that might be for an emergency, and if we think about these issues before those emergencies arise, we’ll be better prepared to be the most inclusive society we can be.

6 thoughts on “Food Allergies and Travel in Recent News

  1. I am one of the ones who said, “I can understand Amtrak’s position…” but I want to make it really clear that their potential difficulty in accommodating certain individuals doesn’t negate their moral or legal responsibility to do so. Building wheelchair ramps or providing Braille writers may be difficult and expensive, but businesses and schools don’t get to say, “We don’t really feel like dealing with that so too bad for you.”

    I agree with you about teaching children critical thinking instead of absolutes. “Don’t talk to strangers” works just fine until your child gets lost at an amusement park. It would be better to say, “Find a worker, a police officer, or a mom pushing a stroller.” Kids need permission to think outside the box sometimes.

    Today in a teacher’s meeting someone said, “We should reward kids for coming in to take their tests next week by giving them popsicles or cookies.” I was about to get on my soapbox about the fact that we don’t need to be shoving food in children’s faces every chance we get, but someone beat me to it. I don’t know how to completely rewire a culture that seems to need food all day long, for every occasion. And I don’t know how to install empathy in people who say, “Yeah, I know my peanuts could kill your child, but I’m hungry and it’s my right.” Maybe that’s the bigger problem, an overall societal lack of empathy?


    1. Great example about talking to strangers. I look at kids today with friends who are allergic and I know they won’t be the ones chowing down on peanuts after a nut warning on a plane. A friend commented on facebook that when she was a kid they still smoked on airplanes and it made her sick with her own asthma/allergies. Strange to think people once thought it was their right to smoke in an enclosed space. We eat dairy now but when a friend with a dairy allergy comes over I don’t even question that I want to put the cheese away and enjoy their company. It just makes sense to me.


  2. My son experienced his first allergic reaction to peanuts on a flight back from Europe when he was 8 months old. We were on a United Airline flight and the cabin staff was the least helpful. They were not even able to tell us the ingredients in the food that had been served and were more concerned that our son’s coughing (struggling to breath) was disruptive. At the time, we were not aware of the allergy. The only medicine we had with us was an antihistamine and a cough sirup offered by another passenger. This helped to reduced his swelling and breathing difficulty. Needless to say, it was a very scary moment for us.
    You mentioned that the family returning to Dublin was going on United? If so, it is unfortunate that 17 years later (my son is now 18), the airline has not progressed.



    1. Oh my goodness, that is so scary. I know our first major reaction I only had an antihistamine to offer my daughter. Makes me think epinephrine should be in every baby first aid kit just in case. But, yes, the family was traveling United both ways. They really are taking an unfortunate position. Thank you so much for sharing, Linh.


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