DOT Rules That Law Protects Passengers Allergic to Goobers

By Scott McCartney, Staff writer
Copyright 1998 Wall Street Journal
Sepetember 2, 1998

Aisle or window? Smoking or nonsmoking? Peanuts or peanut-free?

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed to the 10 major U.S. airlines a set of guidelines designed to accommodate passengers with peanut allergies. Its solution: Each plane should have a designated "peanut-free zone."

After careful study, including a review of Mayo Clinic research on how minute peanut particles collect in airplane ventilation filters, the DOT concluded that an outright ban of peanuts in the skies isn't necessary. Airlines say they also won't be required to ban peanuts that passengers carry on with them, or to confiscate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches at the gate.

"We won't have any peanut friskings," a spokeswoman for American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas, says reassuringly.

Airline Turbulence

Still, the thought of implementing the new directive is giving industry honchos more indigestion than an in-flight meal. "Can you imagine the flight attendant pushing the cart down the aisle and switching to pretzels from peanuts when he or she gets to row 25?" one airline executive says. "Then, when a passenger asks for peanuts, the flight attendant has to say, 'Excuse me, you are sitting in a federally declared peanut-free zone.' "

The DOT's decision falls under the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, a federal law guaranteeing access to airlines for the disabled. In a letter distributed to carriers last month, the DOT concluded that the law requires airlines "to provide peanut-free 'buffer zones' on request and with advance notice, to passengers with medically documented severe allergies to peanuts."

The letter goes on to say that "a buffer zone would consist, at a minimum, of the passenger's row and the rows immediately in front of and behind his or her row."

Thus, even passengers who don't have the allergy will be denied peanuts if they happen to be seated in a peanut-free aisle. And any airline that doesn't comply is subject to possible enforcement action, the DOT says.

Peanut-allergy sufferers -- some of whom are so sensitive that they risk death by ingesting the nuts -- cheer the move. But nut-backers say it is simply another example of bureaucracy run amok.

Peanut Industry in a Jam

"That's so absurd, really just plain absurd," complains Jeannette Anderson, president of the American Peanut Council in Alexandria, Va., an industry trade group. "How can the airlines guarantee a peanut-free environment? They can't guarantee someone won't bring a candy bar or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on board."

The Air Transport Association, which lobbies for major carriers, says its medical experts consulted with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and found that less than one-tenth of 1% of the population is affected by peanut allergies. "We don't think it's a problem," an ATA spokeswoman says.

Still, airlines have twisted themselves up like pretzels trying to figure out how to formulate peanut policies to comply with the DOT edict. One airline executive said the issue came up at a management meeting this week, and the response was, "You've got to be kidding."

Continental Airlines General Counsel Jeffrey A. Smisek says the Houston carrier "intends to comply with the ruling, even though it's a bit curious." American says it has a separate reservations desk to handle passengers" special needs, but it notes that years ago, it substituted pretzels for peanuts on most flights because they are cheaper and lower in fat.

The new directive is especially awkward for Southwest Airlines, the Dallas airline that has long touted the in-flight snacks as a proud symbol of its low-fare structure. The company has decided it will ban nuts completely from some flights if necessary and substitute raisins or other snacks -- in part because it has open seating and there would be no way to isolate an allergic passenger. Reservationists are being trained to handle peanut requests, and people with peanut allergies are being urged to book early morning flights, when cabins are cleaner, spokesman Ed Stewart says. The carrier has also decided to stop buying peanut-butter crackers.

Despite the precautions, however, Mr. Stewart notes, "It is incredibly rare to find an individual with peanut allergies. Except in California."

For those with peanut allergies, the ban is no joke. Ingesting peanuts -- even tiny pieces -- can be deadly to children with the allergy, experts say. Even the whiff of peanuts can cause reactions. And airplanes, which recirculate air and have seat-back pockets that are magnets for peanut crumbs and wrappers, can be treacherous for people with peanut sensitivities.

"Just the smell of fumes when 300 people open peanuts at the same time can give some adults, and children, itchy eyes and allergic reactions," says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy Network in Fairfax, Va.

In-Flight Horrors

Parents within the Food Allergy Network trade air-travel horror stories. One parent asked an airline not to serve peanuts on one flight, only to have walnuts substituted, which were also allergy-causing, Ms. Munoz-Furlong says. In another case, the airline removed peanuts from the snack offerings, but then served the allergic child a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch.

The DOT policy, she says, "is a step in the right direction if it gives parents a safety zone." Still, the organization is opposed to food bans as a general rule; Ms. Munoz-Furlong says parents need to police their own children and not rely on airlines to do it. A similar debate has been dogging schools for several years. Some schools have banned nuts. Others have simply banned food trading to make sure an allergic child doesn't get a dangerous lunch.

But for airlines, the issue only arose recently, after the DOT received about a dozen complaints from allergy sufferers, some claiming that the carriers were discriminating against them.

The DOT launched an investigation, reviewing the March 1996 Mayo Clinic study that found allergens from peanuts served during flights can wash through ventilation-system filters -- albeit only after 5,000 hours of flight. The DOT concluded the real danger was if an allergic passenger ingests a peanut.

Even though the agency couldn't find any cases of medical incidents resulting from airplane peanuts, it decided that requiring peanut-free zones wasn't "unduly burdensome," DOT spokesman Bill Mosley says.

And what if someone allergic to chocolate complains to the DOT? "If someone were to make such a claim," Mr. Mosley says, "we would have to look into it."

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