Rosanne Bloom and her family had just settled into their seats on a flight from Philadelphia to Turks and Caicos Islands on Christmas morning when two airline employees ordered Bloom, her husband and two boys off the plane. Their luggage had been removed.
The problem? Bloom had informed the crew that her teenage sons had severe nut allergies.
"I said, 'We have our medicine. We brought our own food, and we're comfortable staying on the plane.' I offered to sign a waiver," said Bloom, an orthodontist in Clarksville, Maryland. "We were off the plane in two minutes."
Matt Miller, a spokesman for American Airlines, said such decisions are left to the pilot. "The pilot determined it would be best for the family not to travel based on the severity of the allergy and the need to divert the airline if anyone were eating nuts," he said.
Airline carriers have a long tradition of serving peanuts on flights, and often serve little else. But the practice also presents a challenge to travelers with severe nut allergies, who can suffer a reaction simply by touching a surface that has been exposed to nuts.
But tensions between passengers with food allergies and airline staff members have risen in recent years, as airlines have begun to enforce stricter rules related to preboarding passengers. In the past, parents of young children could board the plane early, giving them a chance to wipe down seats, trays and armrests to reduce exposure to allergens. But today many airlines have stopped letting families with children board before other passengers.
When families request permission to preboard – or pose another request, such as asking whether nuts will be served – they risk being taken off the flight or threatened with removal, said Mary Vargas, a lawyer whose family was almost kept off a plane from London back to the United States in December because of a nut allergy.
Families with nut allergies are waging a legal challenge against such policies. Two formal complaints filed with the Department of Transportation in the last month accuse American Airlines of discrimination against passengers with allergies. The complaints cite the airline's preboarding policy, which prohibits preboarding specifically for people with allergies, and not for others.
"This is about being allowed to fly like everybody else in the United States," said Vargas, the lawyer representing the families.
Although nobody tracks medical emergencies on airplanes, studies show that in-flight medical emergencies are relatively uncommon and affect only a fraction of the estimated 3.6 billion passengers who fly each year. Chest pain and cardiovascular events are the most common reason planes are diverted for a medical emergency. Allergic reactions make up fewer than 4 percent of all in-flight medical emergencies, according to a 2013 study published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Notably, American Airlines, which operates one of the largest fleets of planes in the world, does not even serve peanuts. But it does have a peanut policy, in which it states: "Requests that we not serve any particular foods, including tree nuts, on our flights cannot be granted. We are not able to provide nut 'buffer zones,' nor are we able to allow passengers to preboard to wipe down seats and tray tables."
"Ultimately we cannot guarantee customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other nuts during the flight, and allowing people with nut allergies to preboard can create a false sense of security and does not eliminate risk," Miller said.
People who suffer from severe, life-threatening food allergies can experience swelling and difficulty breathing after even a mild exposure. They usually carry an Epi-Pen, which contains epinephrine, a medication that can reverse the symptoms. But in the case of a severe reaction, a person may still need urgent access to a medical facility.
Research has shown that taking steps like creating buffer zones, in which nearby passengers are asked to refrain from eating nut products, and wiping down seats and trays may reduce the risk of an allergic reaction in flight.
One of the complaints, filed Dec. 28, is from Nicole Mackenzie, the mother of a 7-year-old with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and seeds. She was not allowed to preboard to clean the seat before the family's trip last fall from Portland, Oregon, to Charlotte, North Carolina. The second complaint was filed Jan. 10 on behalf of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an organization that represents people with food allergies.
"American Airlines' action was clearly discriminatory," said FARE's chief executive officer and chief medical officer, Dr. James Baker Jr. "It has a defined policy that they put on their website, and the only people they single out from preboarding are people with food allergies."
Lianne Mandelbaum, whose son has allergies, tracks the experiences of travelers with allergies on her website, the No Nut Traveler. She said that each airline makes its own rules but that the policies are inconsistently enforced, so travelers often don't know what to expect when they make travel plans.
"It's like playing Russian roulette," said Michael Silverman, a psychologist in New York City whose 13-year-old daughter, Sydney, has a severe allergy, but who is reluctant to raise the subject for fear of being kicked off a plane.
The Department of Transportation is investigating the complaints, officials said, adding in an email that severe allergies are considered a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act, which regulates air travel, if they impact one's ability to breathe "or substantially impact another major life activity." The nut industry has lobbied against restricting nut consumption on airplanes, and Congress has prohibited the Department of Transportation from imposing any restrictions.
Some airlines are more accommodating to passengers with food allergies. Jet Blue will create a nut-free "buffer zone" around an allergic passenger. Southwest will avoid serving peanuts if flight attendants know an allergic passenger is on board. Delta's policy is also to refrain from serving peanuts if an allergic passenger is onboard.
But interviews with nearly a dozen families and young adults with severe allergies suggest that many people worry about being removed from a flight if they ask whether nuts will be served.
Ana Govorko, a hospital administrator from Princeton, New Jersey, said that in July she and her teenage daughter and adult son were ordered off a Lufthansa jet bound from New York for Munich and Trieste, Italy. She had informed the gate attendant that her daughter has severe allergies and she was carrying medication. The family waited in the airport for seven hours, trying to find another flight, while airline employees, "were joking about her allergies," Govorko said. "They were very rude. It was shocking."
Govorko was able to get on another Lufthansa flight departing from Newark the next day. A Lufthansa spokeswoman, Christina Semmel, said that the Govorkos were allowed to fly after presenting a letter from her daughter's physician, but Govorko says she had presented the letter when she tried to board the first flight.
Laura Ilsley, a mother of two living in Travis, California, had a similar experience last April, when she and her husband, who is in the military, were flying from Incirlik, Turkey, along with their son and 4-year-old daughter, who is severely allergic to peanuts.
When Ilsley informed Air France of her daughter's allergies, the airline's agents said the crew planned to serve peanuts and would not alter their plans, and said the family was "not welcome on board," Ilsley said. Eventually, an Air France manager was able to get the family on a Delta flight, where the crew made an announcement that a child with a severe allergy to peanuts was on board and that pretzels and cookies would be offered instead.
"The staff was very kind and it went off without a hitch," Ilsley said.
In a statement, Air France said the flight crew had "determined it was not in the best interest of the passenger to board the flight on such short notice," and that "the case was handled with concern for passenger safety as the top priority."
Silverman's daughter, Sydney, said she had a very good experience when she flew on Delta from Palm Beach, Florida, back to New York City over the Martin Luther King weekend. A flight attendant noticed she was wiping down her seat and asked if she was allergic to peanuts. Sydney said that she was, but that it was OK to serve nuts.
Nevertheless, the attendant "turned to the people in the row in front of me and in back of me and asked, 'Is it OK if I don't serve you peanuts on the flight?' And they all said yes," Sydney said. "And then she went on the intercom and said they weren't going to serve peanuts because someone on the flight has an allergy, and if people brought peanuts to please not eat them.
"And it made me feel thankful," she said. "No one's ever done anything like that before."