American Airlines’ response to this traveler’s request is a bit nutty

Roseanne Bloom and her family were looking forward to enjoying a Christmas holiday in Turks and Caicos, but when she requested that nuts not be served on the plane because of her sons’ allergies, the only travel they had to look forward to was a drive home.

Why would American kick her family off a flight over allergies? The answer, in a nutshell, is a cautionary tale about the arbitrariness of airline rules, as well as how not to treat a customer and what not to say on an airplane.

When Bloom and her family arrived at the airport early on Christmas morning, she informed the gate agent that her sons are allergic to peanuts and requested that the flight attendants not serve nuts on the plane. The gate agent dismissed her with, “tell the flight attendants,” refused the family’s request to board early to wipe down their seats, and then returned to other duties, refusing further conversation.

Once aboard the plane, Bloom followed the gate agent’s instructions and informed a flight attendant, who assured her that nuts are not served in the main cabin of the airplane, which is where the family was seated. Further conversation revealed that the crew would not assist the Blooms in informing the other passengers seated near them of the allergy, and that warm nuts would be served in first class. When Bloom requested that they not do so, she was asked if her sons’ allergies were airborne. She indicated that they are not. She says, “I have been an “allergy mom” for over 18 years and while I am well aware that I can not control every environment, these are my children so of course I will do anything I can to minimize risk and avoid potential harm.”

One of the flight attendants not only claimed that refraining from serving the nuts to the first class passengers would not be possible, she also said that the first class passengers “deserve warm nuts.” Then she suggested that Bloom should try using a private jet service. Bloom said she simply wanted to try to prevent any possible issues for her sons. Both teenagers, her sons have had allergy issues their entire lives, so she is experienced in trying to make life as safe as possible for her boys.

At some point during the conversation, Bloom said she wanted to know what could be done “in case of emergency.” In retrospect, Bloom believes these were the four words she never should have used. Because this is when the captain became involved, and I’ll let Bloom tell us what happened next. As she wrote to American:

Unsatisfied but thinking that concluded the issue, and comfortable remaining on board (my kids’ allergies are not airborne), my family promptly took our seats and settled in for the flight. This is when several AA employees approached us, said they were removing us from the plane and pulling our luggage, confiscated our tickets, and told us we were not able to fly on other American Airlines flights. Not only was the situation handled inappropriately, but your employees were condescending and rude in their approach. My boys felt discriminated against and were treated as if they had done something wrong. What had we done wrong? We complied and disembarked quietly, but when we started asking questions of the original AA rep we spoke to before boarding, she threatened to call the police.

The flight crew claimed the captain called the “on duty medical team” and determined that the Bloom family should be removed from the flight. Since there wasn’t another available flight for the next week, they were forced to cancel their trip and drive home.

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The captain told Bloom that if the flight were over dry land he would allow them to fly because he would have someplace to land in an emergency. But since the flight was over water and he would have no place to land, he was removing them from the flight. Since the captain’s word is final, Bloom and her family collected their personal belongings, their checked luggage was removed from the plane, and they returned home.

Then she wrote a letter to the president of American Airlines, and copied it to us. We suggested she post her letter to our forums, which she did, and then I started doing some research.

I wondered if there was a standard for handling allergies that American Airlines wasn’t following. Turns out, there isn’t. There is no DOT rule, and nut allergies are not considered a disability. Each airline has its own policy, and while some are very similar, no two are exactly the same.

American’s policy on nut allergies includes the following:

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 pre-board to wipe down seats and tray tables. 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.

While United doesn’t serve peanuts on any flight, its policy is similar to American’s and offers no real assistance to those traveling with allergies:

For operational reasons, we cannot remove any onboard products based on individual customer requests, and we do not offer nut-free buffer zones on our aircraft. Since we cannot guarantee nut-free flights, we encourage customers to review any health concerns with their physicians prior to flying.

The only airline Bloom has flown in the past is Southwest. Although it is famous for its little packets of peanuts, it also actively tries to provide a safe plane for nut allergy sufferers. Southwest asks allergy travelers to arrive at the gate at least one hour prior to the flight time:

Our CSA will provide the Customer with a Peanut Dust Allergy Document and ask him/her to present the document to the Flight Attendant upon boarding. If the Customer has a connection, the CSA will provide the Customer with two documents, one of which should be retained to present to the Flight Attendant on the connecting flight.

Our CSA will advise the Operations (Boarding) Agent so that service of packaged peanuts can be suspended for that flight. Our Operations Agent will notify the Provisioning and/or Ramp Supervisor to stock the aircraft with a sufficient supply of pretzels or alternate snacks. The Operations Agent will also notify the Flight Attendants of the Customer’s final destination and advise them that we cannot serve packaged peanuts until the Customer deplanes.

Delta Air Lines is the only legacy carrier with a policy friendly to allergy sufferers:

When you notify us that you have a peanut allergy, we’ll refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products onboard your flight. We’ll also advise cabin service to board additional non-peanut snacks, which will allow our flight attendants to serve these snack items to everyone within this area. Gate agents will be notified in case you’d like to pre-board and cleanse the immediate seating area. Unfortunately we still can’t guarantee that the flight will be completely peanut-free. Note that some snack products on board may be processed in plants which also process peanut products.

Even flight crews that work for the same airline treat allergy passengers differently. As Bloom points out in her letter to American Airlines: “If you Google ‘air travel peanut allergy,’ you’ll find myriad stories like the one I am about to share with you. People with nut allergies get on airplanes and either experience polite accommodation or some form of discrimination or abuse.”

The fact that each airline has a specific heading on its website for “nut allergies” tells me that the problem happens often enough that it might be time to standardize some kind of policy. I also take exception to the claim that not serving nuts in first class would present any kind of a hardship to first class travelers. I fly first class from time to time, and in addition to the fact that nuts aren’t even served on every flight, anyone who would prioritize complimentary warmed nuts over a potentially life-threatening allergy has bigger problems than not getting warmed nuts to snack on. Ironically, I flew first class on two American flights this morning and no nuts were served on my flight. I assure you, I’m not feeling like it was a hardship.

All airlines that offer any kind of service to nut allergy sufferers require that notification be made to customer service when the reservation was made. During my conversation with Bloom, she admitted that she didn’t notify them in advance, and that she assumed all airlines operated under the same policy as Southwest. She also admitted she learned a lesson about using the words “in an emergency” when trying to advocate for her sons.

Bloom agrees that she made a couple of mistakes in the exchange, but she thinks American Airlines did too, and I think she’s right.

In the interest of full disclosure, American Airlines is the primary carrier I fly. Although it consistently tops our lists of most complained about companies, I usually have a very pleasant experience with its service. But it does have problems — and problem employees — that it needs to address. Suggesting a passenger try private jet service because she is trying to advocate for her son is inexcusable. I also think a few simple questions asked by the crew could have resolved any question about the family’s situation and allowed them to continue on with their vacation.

Bloom wrote a letter to the president of American Airlines. She didn’t send it to the contacts we list on our website, but I suspect the company was expecting something from her, knowing she was removed from the flight.

When it responded, American claimed that the paperwork filed by the crew indicates that during their conversation, Bloom asked if the plane would be able to make an emergency landing if something happened to her son. Bloom doesn’t agree.

American refused to apologize to Bloom, but she asked that her son receive a call, and American did apologize to him.

What happened to the family’s tickets and other vacation arrangements? Their tickets were refunded, and American has agreed to refund their baggage fees, but Bloom hasn’t received the money yet. I hope American follows through — and soon.

The family was forced to cancel the accommodations they made through Airbnb and lost the $570 deposit. Bloom wanted to file a claim on her travel insurance, but she purchased it through American Airlines when she purchased the airline tickets. The company told her that it won’t cover expenses if you’re kicked off your flight. Would purchasing travel insurance through another source have helped? It’s not clear, but perhaps a “cancel for any reason” policy might have refunded most of the money. She could appeal to the Airbnb contacts that we list on our site.

Bloom says she’s still disappointed that things went so horribly wrong for her and her family, but she understands what she did wrong — and how to handle this situation in the future.

If you or a travel companion suffers from nut allergies, be sure to educate yourself. Inform customer service when you book your flights and arrive at the airport early enough that you can be at the gate at least an hour prior to the flight. Experts also suggest booking the first flight of the day because the most thorough cleaning happens overnight, making the first flight of the day least likely to have leftover nuts or nut dust. And always bring your own food — as you probably noticed from the airline policies listed above no airline will (or can) guarantee that other passengers won’t bring nuts aboard, even if the airline itself doesn’t serve nuts or nut products. While some airlines may not agree, requesting to board early to wipe down the seats is not unreasonable.

And, as Bloom has shown us, be careful with the “in case of emergency” phrase or you might find yourself returning home, as well.

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Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans.

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