Galley Gossip: Nut allergies on the airplane

Recently Patricia Aspinall, of Travel Savvy Mom, wrote an interesting article about her experience on board a flight to the Caribbean with a passenger who had a nut allergy, while traveling with her husband and daughter, a two and a half year-old. Like my own two year-old, Patricia’s daughter is a picky eater, so Patricia did what any smart mom would do and packed snacks – peanut butter granola bars.

When the flight attendants on Patricia’s flight asked passengers to refrain from eating nuts, Patricia had no idea what to do about her hungry child, so she asked a flight attendant. “The flight attendant didn’t have any solutions,” wrote Patricia. “It seemed this was a first for them as well.”

Solutions? Unfortunately, there’s just one solution – no nuts! Regardless of picky eaters on board. Not to sound harsh, but I’d rather have a hungry child on my plane than a plane that has to divert because someone has a serious allergy attack.

Daniel More, MD, from, wrote…

A recent study showed that nearly one in 10 people with peanut, tree nut or seed allergies experienced an allergic reaction while traveling on an airplane. Surprisingly, most of these reactions occurred as a result on inhaling airborne particles from peanuts. This occurred after multiple bags of peanuts were opened near a person with peanut allergy. Airborne peanut particles seem to be common on airplanes, since peanut proteins have been found in the ventilation filters of commercial airplanes.

Since commercial airlines may not have emergency medical equipment on board, and because there may not be a medical professional traveling as a fellow passenger, people with peanut allergy need to be prepared. Calling various airline companies to see if peanuts are served on the planned flight is a good idea, but never a guarantee that peanuts won’t be present on the airplane. Carrying an Epi-Pen, as well as an antihistamine, is the best way to be prepared for an allergic emergency. For a long flight, a person with food allergies should consider bringing their own food on the airplane, since airplane food could contain hidden ingredients and may not be labeled as containing common food allergens

Because we no longer serve free food on board the airplanes, nuts are always a popular snack with passengers and crew alike. They’re healthy and filling and fit easily inside a tote bag. My favorite, almonds and pistachios. My coworker last week shared a bag of cashews. People bring nuts and products containing nuts on board all the time. So what happened when a child with a nut allergy walked on board my mother’s flight two years ago?

“The child looked to be about eight years old,” my mother said. “He was on his way to seek medical treatment with a specialist. He tried to smile, but he couldn’t because his lips were too swollen. It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. The skin on his entire body was splotchy, puffy, and swollen. Whenever he’d try to scratch his mother had to force him to stop. I’ve never seen anything like it. Honestly, I had no idea it could be so bad. His eyes were so swollen he could hardly see out of them. Just because of a peanut allergy!”

“As soon as all the passengers were seated on board that flight we made an announcement and told everyone they couldn’t consume nuts because we had a passenger on board with an allergy,” my mother continued. “Everyone was very nice about it. Not one person complained. Then we went through all of our snacks and removed anything with nuts – candy bars and trail mix. We couldn’t even serve the people in first class the warm mixed nuts because his allergy was so severe.”

Not every passenger with a nut allergy experiences the same thing. Recently a passenger came on board and told me she had a nut allergy. I asked if it would be okay if we served snacks containing nuts. She said that was fine, though she, herself, wouldn’t be able to eat them. Every case is different, which is why it’s very important we all work together on this issue. If you’re a passenger with an allergy, please tell the flight attendants just how serious your condition is. If your a flight attendant who finds out there’s a passenger with a nut allergy on board, make you ask how serious the condition may be. While there are no reports of passengers dying from starvation on board a flight, at least none that I know of, I do not believe the same can be said for someone with a serious condition who has accidentally inhaled nuts from passengers sitting nearby.

Don’t forget I’m not just a flight attendant, I’m also the mother of a 2 year-old. I travel with my son often and I always do what Patricia did, I pack snacks – cheese and crackers, raisins, a sliced apple, peanut butter and jelly, cheese nips… Never, ever, do I depend on the airline for my hunger needs, regardless of how much I’ve paid for my ticket. I’ve worked way too many flights where we’ve run out of food (the flights aren’t catered full in coach) or the flight is delayed for hours, or even worse, the flight diverts! Flying can be like a a real life episode of Survivor. You never know what’s going to happen and you’ve got to plan ahead. Especially when you’re traveling with a child. That means you have to pack snacks – maybe even an assortment of snacks if your child is a picky eater.

Patrica went on to write about her experience on board that Caribbean flight…

I was told to go ahead and eat the food I brought. I replied that I wasn’t willing to take the risk. Finally they gave us some free snacks, but asked us please not to tell anyone. They didn’t have enough for everyone. As allergies are becoming a bigger and bigger issue each year, airlines need a definitive policy. As for me, I will definitely rethink what snacks I pack for our next flight

The flight attendants should NOT have told Patricia to go ahead and eat the peanut butter granola bar. However, in defense of those flight attendants, I probably would have done the same thing if I hadn’t heard my mother’s story about the child with the allergy traveling on her flight two years ago. I mean who knew an allergy could be so bad? I mean I have food allergies, but I only get congested when I eat things I shouldn’t eat. Seriously, unless you’ve experienced something first hand, or know someone personally who has a serious allergy problem, you really have no clue how much a person can suffer.

Patricia was smart to have packed granola bars for her child and it was not her fault that she couldn’t give her child the snack she’d packed. Now if I’d been Patricia, I probably would have just purchased another snack from the flight attendant. End of story. Because it’s not the airlines fault that a child with a nut allergy was on board the flight. Nor was it the child’s fault he/she had an allergy causing all items with nuts to remain unopened. There are no easy answers here. Unfortunately these things do happen from time to time. That’s why it’s so important to come prepared. For anything. Thank goodness Patricia new better than to take the risk and open the bar. Thank goodness the flight attendants had a few extra snacks to hand out – free of charge. More importantly, thank goodness the flight landed without further incident.

Got a nut allergy? You might want to read this post about Delta and Northwest. Also, check out these bag tags and nut allergy labels. (featured at the top of this page)

Photo courtesy of (airplane snack) Sean Mun son, (allergic reaction) Nancy