I was sitting down at my computer when an email popped up on my screen. I smiled at my screen when I saw the return address. It was from a fellow advocate I met while I was participating in the International Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Alliance (IFAAA) meeting.
We have become great friends over the past 2 years. We kept in touch via email even though she lives on a different continent. My smile faded as I read the note.
She told me her non-food allergic child had been diagnosed with cancer. The best treatment options were out of the country, and the family would need to travel. Someone else had booked the flights and she was worried about the selected airline’s food allergy policy and track record. They had booked her on Delta Airlines, and she wanted to ask my advice as a food allergy airline advocate. Thankfully, I could tell her that Delta has one of the best food allergy policies and that she would be in good hands. I sat there at my screen and had a good cry that my friend had to worry about safely traveling on top of her child’s diagnosis.
I often receive hate mail regarding my advocacy to make flying safer for people with food allergies. The lack of empathy and compassion makes me cringe. Many people suggest that those with food allergies should simply not fly, and flying is a luxury that we have no right to expect. Some even go on to make suggestions that food allergic passengers should drive or just take a bus. Please remember, travel is not always a luxury. Food allergy safety on planes should not be negotiable.
The testimonials that I have collected indicate many airlines are consistently inconsistent. Food allergic passengers fly the same carrier on different occasions and experience disparate treatment. This makes it difficult to navigate the system and make informed choices. Many families report being kicked off flights for revealing a food allergy, being mocked by flight attendants, and being ridiculed by other passengers or airline staff.
Each airline dictates its own policy toward food allergies with no oversight or ramifications for not adhering to it. Sometimes, the airline with the least accommodating policy is the only means of getting to your destination quickly (medical treatments, sports competitions, funerals etc.).
Many people, including airline staff, are not educated as to what having a food allergy means when traveling. They often think: Just don’t eat food with your allergen. Yet the reality is far more complicated than that. A person with a food allergy, who ingests even a tiny amount of food ― say a leftover smear on an airline tray or dust that settled from a previous passenger’s bag of nuts ― could set off anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction).
It is time for the airline industry to share responsibility for the safety of food allergic passengers and develop a clear and consistent approach. It is also necessary to educate all airline staff on the severity of food allergies and to be prepared in the event of an emergency by labeling emergency medications and having auto injectors onboard.
I want to leave you with the thought that there are no vacations from food allergies, even when you get a devastating diagnosis of another disease. When we travel, we are far from medical care. There is no ER in the air and that is why, as allergic passengers, we ask for reasonable accommodations like pre-boarding the aircraft to clean from past contamination to make flying safer. It seems simple to implement because quite frankly, it is. Airlines who do it right show us it can be done. I simply do not understand or accept that policies that show respect and kindness towards food allergy flyers is not an achievable goal for all airlines.