The new policy is a departure from the carrier’s previous hands-off approach to allergy sufferers.
Air travel for people with severe nut allergies can be a potentially stressful and downright dangerous situation. Once onboard their flight, allergy sufferers “do not have access to emergency medical care and airline policies on accommodations can be hard to find or inconsistently applied,” according to the Food Allergy Research & Education organization.
But American Airlines just took a step toward trying to make the experience a little less anxiety-inducing.
“Starting December 12, customers with nut allergies who would like to board flights early to wipe down surfaces may ask to do so at the gate,” an American spokesperson told AFAR. “Though we do not serve peanuts in flight, we can’t guarantee our customers won’t be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during their trip. We strongly encourage those with allergies to take all necessary medical precautions before flying.”
Up until now, American’s policy toward people with nut allergies was much more hands-off. In a statement on its website, the carrier notes that it can’t accommodate requests to not serve certain foods, to provide nut “buffer zones,” or to allow passengers with nut allergies to board early to clean their area—but that last part is about to change.
The new policy is being put into place after two complaints were filed last year with the U.S. Department of Transportation claiming that American Airlines discriminated against passengers with allergies, the New York Times reported. One of the complaints was filed by a mother of a seven-year-old with severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds, who said she was not allowed to preboard a flight from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to clean the seats.
American doesn’t serve peanuts on its flights, but it does serve other nut products, and it notes on its website that other passengers can bring peanuts or other nuts on board.
Delta Air Lines’s policy states that it will allow customers with peanut or nut allergies to board early to clean their seats; United doesn’t address the issue of preboarding in the allergy policy section of its website. However, United does state that customers with food allergies should notify a flight attendant, and that "in some cases, we may be able to pass along your request to other customers seated nearby to refrain from opening and eating any allergen-containing products."
JetBlue states that its policy is to “discretely create a buffer zone for nut consumption one row in front of and one row behind the customer with the allergy. The customers in these rows will be asked to not consume any nuts during the flight.” And Southwest reported that it stopped serving peanuts onboard its flights as of August 1, 2018, but didn’t offer much about additional accommodations for allergy sufferers.
According to Lianne Mandelbaum, founder of The No Nut Traveler, a website that compiles resources and advocacy tools for those flying with food allergies, the reason American Airlines’s move is important is because preboarding can be one of the most significant safety measures people with allergies can take.
“The most critical precaution one can take is to preboard the aircraft in order to be able to thoroughly remove any residue from the seat, tray and general area,” Mandelbaum wrote in a story in response to American putting the new policy in place.
Her hope is that ultimately any person with a food allergy—not just those with nut allergies—will have the right to preboard and clean their area on flights.