Flying With Food Allergies
Whether you’re heading out for spring break or to grandma’s for the weekend, air travel is a necessity for millions of people, including those living with food allergies.
Recent headlines have highlighted a key reason why traveling with food allergies is tricky. While food allergies are defined as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, airlines abide by a different set of rules defined by the Air Carrier Access Act. Under these guidelines, a pilot can prevent you from boarding or ask you to get off the plane if you make yourself or your child seem “medically fragile," according to his or her own discretion.
But don’t let the uncertainty surrounding air travel keep you grounded. With a little extra planning and the right resources, every family can have the adventures they deserve.
To clear the air and make flights smoother, we laid out the 16 tips for flying with food allergies, identified the top six “food allergy-friendly” airlines and found a mission-driven mom dedicated to making air travel easier for all of us.
1. Choose the right airline.
Not all airlines are created equal. While every major carrier has a food allergy policy, some are more supportive than others. Check out our top six airline picks that go above and beyond.
2. Try to book the earliest flight of the day.
The time of day you fly impacts the cleanliness of the aircraft. Planes that leave early in the morning are more likely to have been recently cleaned compared to planes that have been operating all day.
3. Call a reservation agent.
Once you’ve found the best flight, alert the airline about any accommodations you or your child may need. While some airlines like Southwest regularly serve peanuts, they will swap them with other snacks if the crew gets advance notice. Some carriers like JetBlue have simplified the process by adding this step to their online booking process.
4. Book a window seat.
Reserve a window seat for your child. With you seated in the neighboring seat, you can ensure at minimum that the only adjacent seat will be allergen-free.
5. Research the inflight snack selection.
Knowing what to be mindful of helps to reduce the uncertainty. Most airlines post snack offerings and ingredient information on their websites.
BEFORE YOU BOARD
6. Pack safe snacks and meals at home.
Inflight meals and airport restaurants options can be limited. Plan ahead and stock up on food you feel comfortable eating. Consider packing extra snacks in the event your flight is delayed.
7. Pack disinfecting wipes.
These handy wipes can be used to clean the armrests, tray tables and seats to safeguard against contact reactions or cross-contamination.
8. Pack auto-injectors in a carry-on.
Remember to bring an extra set of two on every flight. Keep them in a carry-on and nearby in case of emergency. While all airlines are required to stock epinephrine in their medical kits, most only have vials. This means a doctor must be on board to determine the dosage and administer it if there’s an emergency.
9. Label your auto-injector clearly.
Before going through security, double-check that your epinephrine auto-injectors are packed in a carry-on. You may also need to show the printed label that identifies the medication and/or the pharmacy sticker that’s usually on the box. A doctor’s note that confirms your allergy won’t hurt, but it’s not required to bring medication on board. The EpiPen manufacturer suggests asking for a visual inspection rather than an X-ray since the effects of X-rays on epinephrine are unknown.
10. Decide if you want to request pre-boarding.
If you want the opportunity to clean your area with a disinfecting wipe before the plane is packed with people and luggage, pre-boarding may be an option. Some airlines are very accommodating... others, not so much. If you’re denied pre-boarding but you still want to wipe down your seat, don’t hesitate to hold up the line. You and your family have the right to feel safe and comfortable.
11. Ask about a buffer zone.
Some airlines will create buffer zones around food allergic travelers and ask people in neighboring seats not to eat their allergen. Check the airline’s policy and talk to the flight crew before takeoff.
12. Speak up and/or switch seats.
If the flight crew won’t ask people to put away their PB&Js, be your own advocate. Inform those around you about your allergy, and if they don’t respect your request, ask to switch seats or extend the offer to buy them an allergen-free snack.
13. Have a plan in case of emergency.
Before you fly, consult with your allergist to map out a worst-case-scenario plan. If you have a serious allergic reaction, every doctor will tell you to use your epinephrine auto-injector right away and ask a flight attendant to see if there’s a physician or allergist on board. Ask about symptoms that may necessitate using a second auto-injector. In an emergency situation, a domestic flight can typically land at an alternate airport within 25 minutes.
14. Don’t use the airline-issued blankets or pillows.
As any frequent flier knows, the blankets and pillows can be pretty gross. Not only are they germy, they may also be dusted in allergens.
15. Find a way to say thanks after a good experience.
Share the love after a good flight — write a letter of appreciation, give the crew a shout-out on social media and spread the word to other families with food allergies.
16. Make your voice heard after a bad experience.
We know how frustrating it is, but negative experiences can be disguised as opportunities to advocate for those traveling in similar shoes. After a negative flight, you can file a consumer complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, write a customer review or consider signing Lianne Mandelbaum's petition to secure rights for those flying with food allergies.
Top 6 Airlines
Leave it to the Canadians to go out of their way to accommodate food allergic travelers. Canada is currently the only country that has a formal policy that requires a three-row buffer zone around a passenger with a peanut or tree nut allergy. To request a buffer, contact the Air Canada Medical Assistance Desk at least 48 hours before your flight. Other passengers in the buffer zone will be told they must not eat peanuts or tree nuts aboard the plane.
In February 2016, British Airways became the first major airline to make inflight allergy announcements part of their official policy, which is changing the game for international travelers and setting a new standard in the industry. They will now ask that those sitting near passengers with peanut allergies refrain from eating peanut products. British Airways doesn’t serve peanuts aboard flights, and their in-flight medical kits contain epinephrine auto-injectors.
When flying Delta, notify them of any allergies at least 48 hours in advance. If you’re booking online, list out allergies in the “special services” section. If a traveler is peanut allergic, they’ll refrain from serving peanut products and stock alternative snacks. The gate agents will also be notified in case you want to pre-board and wipe down the tray table, seat and arm rests. While it’s not part of their official policy, an accommodating crew may offer to create a three-row buffer zone around food allergic passengers.
JetBlue is one of our go-to airlines because it’s consistently accommodating for food allergic passengers and their families. It all begins with booking - they ask questions about allergies when you buy online so you don’t have to make a special call to a reservation agent. No peanuts are served aboard their planes, and for those wishing to wipe down their seats, pre-boarding is an option. If you give the crew enough notice, they will also create a buffer zone around a food allergic traveler — the row where he or she is seated, one row ahead and one row behind. Flights attendants do this discreetly without identifying the allergic passenger. Bonus: JetBlue stocks an epinephrine auto-injector in their medical kit.
Yes, Southwest serves peanuts, but travelers with nut allergies are still flying cross-country with great success. While making a reservation, check the box under "Assistance with Disabilities" that you "Have a peanut dust allergy." Also, get to the gate at least an hour early, fill out a “peanut dust allergy” form and make sure the flight crew gets a copy. At that point, they’ll swap out the peanut snacks for pretzels or another nut-free option. If you have a milk allergy, be aware that a substitute snack is sometimes cheese crackers. It’s up to the gate agent whether you can pre-board to wipe down your area, so the airline suggests booking the first flight of the day to get the cleanest plane possible. Since Southwest lets you choose your seats, parents can create their own buffer around a food allergic child or pick seats where they feel most comfortable.
Virgin is one of few airlines that has made inflight announcements about nut allergies part of their official policy. Once they’re informed about a nut allergy, the flight crew will get on the PA and ask that other passengers not eat products or open packages that contain nuts. While pre-boarding and buffer zones aren’t part of their policy, friendly crews are part of the company culture, so they regularly make special considerations for food allergic guests.
No Nut Traveler Lianne Mandelbaum
In 2013, food allergy mom and frequent flier Lianne Mandelbaum took a negative travel experience and turned it into a passion project. She launched No Nut Traveler, an online advocacy group for people with food allergies who want to fly on commercial airlines. Lianne shared her personal experience and how it affected her son, Joshua, a child with an anaphylactic peanut allergy. Soon after, firsthand stories from other parents began pouring in.
Today, Lianne is a go-to resource for families flying with food allergic children. Her online petition to institute a bill of rights for passengers with food allergies has more than 84,000 signatures, and she’s just getting started.