Friday, June 06, 2008

Learning about nut-free airlines

I flew from Frankfurt to Southampton this morning on Flybe. It was only a Dash 8 turboprop, so even though the flight was nearly full, the number of passengers disembarking at Southampton was about 60-70 and I was through passport control in less than 10 minutes. The bags were ready to pick almost immediately, so it only took about 15 minutes in total to go from the plane to the car rental desk. What a change from the hassle of entering the UK through Heathrow. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes just to taxi to the gate there – let alone the time it takes to walk to the baggage collection area. You’d be lucky to get through Heathrow in under an hour – and that’s not counting any extra time that is spent in the air in holding patterns due to air traffic congestion. I made a mental note to try and use regional airports more often when entering the UK.

Flybe is one of those low cost airlines where you buy your food and drink on board. I noted on its menu that it was promoting itself as “a nut-free airline”.
A nut-free airline? What on earth is that? This was the first time I had come across an airline promoting itself as nut-free.

I did a google search for nut-free airlines and discovered an article in the New York Times that was published in May 1998. It read:

“NOW that cigarettes have been largely banished from the friendly skies, airlines have a new health threat to contend with: peanuts.

“Served up by the thousands in tidy little packages, peanuts have long been the prevailing airborne snack. But lately, airlines have been fielding calls from anxious people who ask that peanuts be banned from their flights.

“The problem is that about two million Americans are allergic to peanuts or other nuts. Reactions can be touched off by eating them or by even casual contact with their residue. In severe reactions, people can go into shock and die. An estimated 5 percent of all reactions are fatal, with 125 deaths a year, allergists say.

“So it is a small problem for the airlines - but just the right size to befuddle them.

“The big fear among allergic passengers is that a child will find and eat some peanuts, or that peanut dust circulating and re-circulating in the close confines of a cabin will cause a fatal reaction. Most parents recognize that the airlines can't eliminate every peanut from all flights; they are asking simply that the airlines not serve any while they're aboard.”

And the article went on about lobbying efforts that some organisations were undertaking to have airlines ban peanuts from their planes.

So it looks like that after 10 years of lobbying, at least one airline has now declared itself as nut-free. That might also explain why I have seen some other airlines change from peanuts to almonds or cashew nuts over the past few years (that puzzled me at the time because most airlines where making changes to reduce costs, but changing from peanuts to almonds or cashews would have increased their costs).

I learned from my googling that ‘anaphylaxis’ is the word that is used for reactions to nuts which, if severe enough, can be life-threatening. It was a new word for me. Although I had heard of people being allergic to nuts, I didn’t realise that just being in contact with them can cause death. Although the number of people who die each year is quite small (although the NYT article suggested it causes 125 deaths a year, another site that I read said it was only three per year in the U.S.) – that in itself seems to have generated quite a lot of controversy over whether banning nuts on planes is an over-reaction.

Another opinion that I read online said that there was just as much chance of being run over by a bus in the airport parking lot than dying from a nut allergy on a flight, so airlines shouldn’t over-react to the lobbying that anaphylaxis support groups were conducting. Several other sites made a similar point saying there were many more everyday risks that provided greater dangers than nut allergies.

Apparently in the U.S. there is now a requirement that if a passenger notifies the airline of a nut allergy, they have to provide a nut-free zone around where the passenger is seated (to include the row in front and the row behind). One of the opinion articles that I read pointed out that other people are allergic to almonds, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazel nuts, pistachio nuts, walnuts, pecan nuts, coconut, sesame seed, poppy seed, sunflower seed, and pine kernels – so do you ban all those as well?

And someone else said that as some people are allergic to latex, should you ban condoms from being carried on flights? Maybe that last suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, but illustrates that there has to be a point where you reach a compromise.

Nuts are a healthy snack, and I would have enjoyed having a packet on my Flybe flight (the only alternatives were less healthy snacks like Pringles, Mars bars, eccles cakes, chocolate muffins or flapjacks). It doesn’t worry me if I can’t get peanuts – but I would like to be able to eat other types of nuts. However I would be prepared to accept a situation where an airline didn’t serve any nuts on a flight where a passenger had advised in advance that they suffered from a severe nut allergy. That seems to be a fair compromise taking account of the rights of people with nut allergies to have a risk-free flight, and the rights of people without nut allergies to enjoy a healthy range of foods when they are flying. Banning all nuts from all flights seems to be an over-reaction.

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