Tuesday, July 23, 2013


A few weeks ago, a friend asked me how I manage my allergies with air travel.

My immediate answer was that I just don't anymore. But its actually a more complicated answer than that. My decision on which airline to use, or whether or not to fly at all, involves research, risk analysis, individual airline's reputation for hospitality, seating arrangements, emergency procedures, and faith in strangers.

The research needs to be done every time I travel because policies are constantly changing. For example, in 2002, American Airlines became peanut free. Sometime between then and now, they  almost completely reversed their policy. This is their current statement: American recognizes that some passengers are allergic to peanuts and other tree nuts. Although we do not serve peanuts, we do serve other nut products (such as warmed nuts) and there may be trace elements of unspecified nut ingredients,including peanut oils, in meals and snacks. We do not have in place procedures that allow our flight crews not to serve these foods upon request of a customer.  We do not provide nut “buffer zones”.  Our planes are cleaned regularly, but these cleanings are not designed to ensure the removal of nut allergens, nor are our air filtration systems designed to remove nut allergens. Additionally, other customers may bring peanuts or other tree nuts on board. Therefore, we cannot guarantee customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during flight, and we strongly encourage customers to take all necessary medical precautions to prepare for the possibility of exposure.

At the moment, Delta has the most reasonable policy. Its not perfect, but its the best out there right now: As of June 1, 2012, Delta will refrain from serving peanuts on your flight if you notify them at least 48 hours before your flight of your allergy. Until then, Delta will create a "buffer zone" of three rows in front of and behind customers with severe peanut allergies. People seated within this zone will be served non-peanut snacks – the rest of the plane may receive peanuts. Delta will allow you to pre-board and sanitize your seat.

It is true that I haven't been on a plane in over four years. The last trip I took was from New York to San Antonio and back for the annual APCE conference. I only got to go because the church paid. Air travel is expensive and our finances are so tight that we can't even afford a local camping trip, so traveling by plane isn't actually on my mind all that much.

But if cost weren't a factor, there are plenty of places I would love to go. And every once in a while, there is someplace I need to go.

Its scary. When I have had reactions in other public venues, I can escape. Its easier, and I'm more likely to survive if I can get myself outside or to an uncontaminated location. If I go into full on anaphylaxis, I need to get to a hospital as quickly as possible. Even within the time it takes to make an emergency landing, there's a good chance I wouldn't make it.

I missed my grandfather's funeral because I could not find an affordable, safe flight in time.

I have run into the full spectrum of people looking for and talking about safe flights. And its discouraging to discover that many people seem to have the opinion that people with my allergies just shouldn't travel. They are either incredibly selfish, or they don't actually understand what its like to live with this kind of disability. They talk about those little packets of peanuts like they are a God-given right. I've been told that it isn't fair to try to regulate what passengers can and cannot eat and if I don't feel safe, I just shouldn't fly.

I do wish that these people could live my life, even if for just a few days. I have a can have a life-threatening reaction by simply inhaling dust from across the plane. Severe food allergies are classified as disabilities for children. They get special accommodations and individual plans for school. But as an adult, there is nothing in place for me. I cannot decide to live my life in a bubble, as they suggest. Who would pay for it? I do not qualify for disability insurance. Not only do I want to experience the world, I must. And I depend on the people I encounter to show a little compassion and help me stay safe in public places.

And there are some people who get it, they recognize that they can live without the dangerous food for a few hours and value the safety of everyone on board.

Some people don't believe that peanut protein can be airborne or that the residue can cause a severe reaction. At best they will accuse us of overreacting and at worst, they have gone out of their way to try and disprove the person trying to protect themselves. These people are dangerous.

So, my process needs to start well ahead of time. If its determined that flying is the best option, I start by checking individual airlines' websites for peanut policies. Then, I make phone calls to the ones with the most promising statements. Even then, I try to book myself a safe seat. I prefer to sit in a corner. The fewer strangers with direct contact to me, the better. If I'm traveling as part of a group, I try my best to surround myself with people I know, for a fact, understand my situation. I will not take a flight that does not have assigned seating. I talk to someone at the gate before I board. I carry several doses of Benedryl and two Epi-pens in a clearly labeled pouch that does not leave me. I make sure at least one other person on-board, whether it be a travel companion or a flight attendant, knows about my allergies, where my epi is, and how to use it.  I carry wipes on board and clean off my seat and tray before I sit. I have trained my bladder like a trucker, the restrooms could be dangerous, so I don't use them. I try to avoid contact with every person I don't know. I carry my own food (if they'll let me) I don't eat anything that isn't clearly labeled.

And, despite my efforts, I often deplane wheezy.

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