We're back from Spring Break in Florida, so since I'm fresh from air travel with nut allergies I wanted to share our experience. Many readers and Facebook fans have questions about this topic, so this is for you!
The prospect of air travel can be frightening for families dealing with food allergies for so many reasons. Close, cramped airplane seats, peanuts or tree nuts served to all passengers as snacks, recirculated air, food brought on by other passengers, food left over from previous flights are all of concern.
Here is the most important lesson to learn from air travel: There is absolutely no way you can ever elminate all allergenic foods from your flight. There are many reasons for this; I witnessed several incidences. For one thing, even though some airlines no longer serve peanuts, they sell "snack packs" to people willing to pay for them. These packs often contain a pack of tree nuts. Secondly, airlines in general do not even offer snacks anymore or lunches, dinners, etc. unless you are flying First Class. (And I don't know many families who do that.) What does that mean? Due to the "no snacks" policies, I saw many families bringing on full lunches or buying food at the airport for the plane trip.
You can't blame people. Both of our flights got delayed and in one case, re-routed due to bad weather and we ended up on one flight several hours longer than had been anticipated. People get hungry and want to eat.
That said, this does not have to be a big problem. You can take proactive measures. Here are some things we did/considered before flying.
The airline. We chose an airline, Continental, that never serves peanuts as snacks. They are now merging with United, so we bought our tickets through United. That airline also does not serve peanuts. They DO serve tree nuts in the snack pack available for purchase, but that is costly and very few customers bought that. Does the snack pack potentially still pose a small risk? Yes, but it's much better than 270 people being served peanuts at one time. By choosing an airline that does not serve peanuts/tree nuts as the in-flight snack given to all passengers, we eliminated a lot of risk right there.
Take your inhaler/epinephrine autoinjectors/anihistamine in your carry-on. Luckily not one person questioned our daughter's autoinjectors or other medications. In fact, they announced at the airport security that these items were allowed. Having important meds close at hand is crucial, so don't put them in your bag that will go in the cargo hold; carry those with you at all times.
The time of day. We were unable to get the earliest flights of the day, so we did fly on planes that had been previously vacated by a previous flight's passengers. Many times the early flights are "cleaner" i.e. other passengers have not had a chance to leave food residue.
Board early. We asked the attendants at the check-in desk if we could board with the young children/needs special assistance group so that we could clean our seating area before others boarded the plane. This was a huge help and we were able to do this on both flights. I cleaned the arm rests, looked at the seats and immediate floor area and the tray tables. I wiped off the surfaces my daughter would touch with wipes (not too strong-smelling, since some people react to fragrances esp. in a plane's close quarters) and we were good to go.
Bring safe snacks/hand wipes. My daughter had food for the flight so the food on offer wasn't an issue. We also served her a bottled or canned drink during the beverage service. Some airlines use a communal bottle and cups for water and juice. It's possible for snack items to get into these vessels so we chose sealed containers. Before eating her own snack, my daughter used a hand wipe (her suggestion, her choice. I liked it. :))
Seating. We strove to get seating in a row just with our family. On the way home, our family had split seating so I put my daughter next to the window with me in between. That way, there was a person between her and the other passenger not in our group. As it turned out, this passenger ate and drank nothing at all during the flight! This is not always the case, so placing a body between the allergic person can help create a barrier. Still, if you have enough people in your party, claiming an entire row is a nice way to reduce the food exposure.
These were relatively simple measures and we did well on the flight. My daughter was a little sneezy afterwards but I think it had more to do with her seasonal allergies kicking in. Though we were surrounded by people and food, we were happily able to enjoy our flight. In fact, she enjoyed it way more than I did--I'm a white-knuckle flier especially with the recent 737 issues with regard to the plane's safety and structural problems!!!
The main point I want to make is that you can travel by airplane with kids who have severe nut allergies if you take some precautions and are careful. Allergic Living magazine has a great airline info sheet that compares airlines and their food/peanut policies so please check out that great, well-researched resource.
I will have more posts about our recent travel experiences, so please check back soon!