The End of Peanuts on Planes? Airlines Face a Battle Over Nut Allergies

Having a serious allergic reaction at 30,000 feet can be life threatening. (Photo: Thinkstock)

After two young girls had life-threatening anaphylactic reactions to nuts mid-air in separate incidents on recent flights, a debate on nut allergies and air travel is heating up.

Though major airline carriers are always reviewing their policies, when it comes to nut allergies, they seem satisfied that their current policies are working. Many airlines no longer serve peanuts and most say they are willing to make accommodations for passengers with allergies.

Still, “There are no federal guidelines for airlines,” when it comes to accommodating the safety of passengers with nut allergies, says Lianne Mandelbaum, the mother of a child with a nut allergy and founder of the website,

In the absence of federal directives, the airlines are left to set and enforce their own policies, and what passengers encounter when flying is a mixed mag – both among airlines and on different flights within the same airline.

It’s something activists from food allergy organizations, to medical personnel to parents of kids with allergies and sufferers themselves are trying to change.

Lianne Mandelbaum and her son Josh. (Photo: Lianne Mandelbaum)

Mandelbaum for one, is working overtime. She’s currently gathering signatures on a petition calling for airlines to institute a passenger bill of rights and working with politicians (like New Jersey senators Cory Booker and Joe Kyrillos) to get federal guidelines in place.

“We are asking for the ability to pre-board and wipe down the seat,” explains Mandelbaum. “We also want it to be standard that once they informed of the allergy, the crew will create a buffer zone three rows in front and three rows behind the allergic person where they will not serve any nut products and ask customers seated those rows to refrain from consuming any that they have brought onboard.”

The truth is, airlines cannot guarantee nut-free flights – even non-nut foods may be processed in facilities that also handle nuts, and it’s not possible to prevent passengers from bringing nuts on board themselves.

Mandelbaum says she is not trying to ban nuts from planes. She just wants fair and sensitive policies.

Josh flying with his “No Nuts” protective seat cover. (Photo: Lianne Mandelbaum)

The New Jersey mom began her fight last summer after she says she had a traumatic experience flying with her now 9-year-old son Joshua, who is highly allergic to peanuts.

“We waiting in the airport to fly home from vacation on United, so I asked to pre-board so I could wipe down my son’s seat, and I asked them to make an announcement about his allergy,” says Mandelbaum, who explains that most passengers are helpful refrain from eating nuts when they are made aware. She says her requests were denied and that an airline manager said — in front of her young son — “If you think he’s going to die, don’t get on the plane.”

Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesperson for United Airlines, disputes the story: “Flight attendants, whose primary role is customer safety, are happy to mention to customers that there is a fellow traveler onboard with a peanut allergy. Because no airline can guarantee that an aircraft will be free of particular allergens, we urge any customer with a severe allergy to discuss options and alternatives with a medical professional.”

Since then, Mandelbaum and have her family have been flying JetBlue, which she says have thus far been very accommodating and friendly. Southwest Airlines and Delta are also “pretty forward-thinking on accommodations,” says Mandelbaum.

Though none of the major airlines bill themselves as nut-free, as it currently stands, each has it’s own (self-policed) policy. Here are the highlights:

United Airlines does not serve pre-packaged peanuts, however, they do not offer nut-free buffer zones and do not guarantee “nut-free” flights, and any other accommodations are discretionary.

American Airlines also does not serve peanuts, but they do serve other kinds of nuts. And, according to the policy listed on the airline’s website: “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.”

While Delta is one of the few airlines that still serves peanuts, on the website their policy states that upon notification of a peanut allergy, “We’ll refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products onboard your flight.” They will also serve “non-peanut” snacks to everyone within the area of the affected passenger. Delta also provides for pre-boarding to so the passenger can clean his or her seat.

US Airways serves nuts, but not peanuts, and cannot provide nut-free zones or accommodate specific requests to not serve food containing nuts.

According to Southwest Airlines’ spokesperson Dan Landon, “Southwest was built on free peanuts and pretzels, so it’s ingrained in the culture. However, we realize there are people who have allergies, and we will do our best to keep a particular flight as peanut free as possible.” Specifically, the airline will make “every attempt” not to serve packaged peanuts on the plane when there is an allergic customer.

JetBlue “Does not serve peanuts and has no immediate plans to serve peanuts,” but does serve other nuts. Upon request, they will have a crew member ask nearby passengers to refrain from eating nuts to create a buffer zone.

Virgin America lists all on-board products that contain allergens including nuts, on their website and on on-board menus. The flight can make an announcement on board to ask guests to refrain from opening any packets or consuming items that contain nuts.

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