With So Many People Allergic to Nuts, Why Are Airlines Still Serving Them?

United Airlines allegedly booted a family off a flight after they requested a nut-free atmosphere.

(Photo: Flickr)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Hungry air travelers often look forward to the moment flight attendants come down the aisle and ask, “Peanuts or pretzels?” Unless, that is, they’re one of the 1 to 3 million people in the U.S. with a peanut or tree nut allergy.

The family of a four-year-old girl traveling on a recent United Airlines flight found out the hard way just how disastrous nuts on a plane can be after their daughter had a severe allergic reaction due to exposure to cashews on a flight from Dublin to Newark, N.J. Now the family’s outraged, saying the airline refused to accommodate their request to make the return flight nut-free.

“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,' " the mother, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Irish Independent.

According to the mother, two hours into the flight to Newark the airline “served a small bowl of cashew nuts and another mix of nuts.” Their daughter, who had never exhibited signs of a nut allergy before, ate just one measly cashew.

That was apparently enough to do serious damage.

“Within 30 seconds to a minute, her face blew up and she broke out in hives all over her body. She couldn’t breathe properly either,” the mother told the paper. Another passenger had a shot of adrenaline and injected the girl with it. The plane subsequently turned around and headed back to Dublin, where the child was admitted to a hospital.

For the family’s eventual flight to the U.S., the mom says, United agreed to fly the family on a completely nut-free plane. But when it came time to return home, flying without cashews or other nuts turned into a problem. They were kicked off one flight and had to delay until the next day, when the airline agreed to not serve tree nuts as a snack.

The incident comes just days after Fae Platten, a four-year-old British girl, went into anaphylactic shock on a Ryanair flight in the U.K. At her family’s request Ryanair flight attendants had asked other passengers not to consume nuts during the flight because someone with a severe allergy was on board. Indeed, most airlines will make such a request if they’re informed in advance of an allergy. One passenger (who has since been banned from flying on Ryanair for the next two years) refused to comply and decided to munch on a bag of nuts he’d brought on board.

As for United Airlines, the company told the paper, “Although we do not serve peanuts on our flights, it's not possible to prevent customers from bringing food items on board that contain peanuts.” That may be true, but with the number of people with food allergies on the rise, nuts on a plane may join smoking sections on the ash bin of commercial aviation.

The little girls in both these incidents survived, but an ounce of prevention goes a long way. (Just not from Newark to Dublin.) 

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