Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Peanut Allergy News: Successful Spring Break Air Travel

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.

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 eliminate 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.

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.

Deciding whether or not your severely allergic child is fit for air travel is very personal and something you should speak to your doctor about. In our case, we have successfully flown several times with our severely allergic daughter. I'm not saying it's not stressful at times, but having preparation and a game plan definitely helps.

If you do decide to fly, you can take proactive measures. Here are some things we did/considered before flying.

The airline. Know the policies of the airline before you buy a ticket. Note: They will NOT change their policies for individual passengers in most cases. By choosing an airline that does not serve peanuts/tree nuts as the in-flight snack given to all passengers, you can reduce risk. Use Plane Sheets and ask to board early to clean your seating area. We've done this. Usually, we run into other families boarding early to clean seats, too (on a recent flight, we were one of three families boarding early because of allergies.) I can't emphasize enough that keeping your cool with the airlines is key. They have been known to boot passengers with allergies if the families start making demands that are not "in policy." That's why I strongly recommend that you know the airline's policies before buying the ticket.

Take your inhaler/epinephrine auto-injectors/anihistamine in your carry-on. Having a note from your doctor is nice because you can show it if someone questions your meds. However, on recent flights not one person questioned our daughter's auto-injectors 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. If you have enough people in your party, claiming an entire row is a nice way to reduce the food exposure.

Important note: Don't ever assume that an airline will make an announcement telling passengers that they must refrain from eating peanuts, tree nuts or other foods due to an allergic passenger. Read the allergy guidelines of an airline on their web site or call them directly to find out how they handle allergies. Every airline is different. If you determine that airline travel is unsafe for your situation, it's better to figure that out in advance. Your allergist can help you make this determination, along with the policies of the particular airline you want to use.

 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!


Lindsay said...

Thank you for the tips, Jenny! I'll use these when booking my international flight this month. Traveling with food allergies (and a bit of white-knuckle anxiety- I have that too!) can be stressful, but it's definitely possible!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! We have to fly about once per year to FL to visit relatives with my 4yr old peanut & egg allergic son. We too have found that most airlines are more than willing to assist with special needs & will let us board ahead of time to wipe down the seats, etc... In our case, it even asked when booking our flight (AirTran) if we had anyone in our party with a peanut allergy, that way they can provide ONLY peanut-free products during that flight, which helped ease our minds alot. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your advice. We recently traveled on Southwest and despite calling two weeks ahead and letting them know I was flying with a severely allergic little "peanut", telling the person who checked my bags, telling the airport attendant who let us on the plane and telling the head flight attendant when we boarded early with a disability tag, she pulled out her snacks and started serving little bags of peanuts. Thank goodness I wasn't sleeping. She felt horrible for making the mistake. She quickly grabbed all of the peanuts back from the ten or so people who were about to open the packages. If we had been in the middle or the back of the plane who know what in the world would have happened. I will now always make sure to check out the snacks prior to them being served as an extra precaution. Other than that, we fly quite a bit and have never had a problem (knock on wood). We are going to try an oversees flight later this year. I will be meeting with my son's doctor for a full medical run down!

Anonymous said...

Great tips! I have had success with the same procedures in place. You can ask when you book and again at check in for the pre-boarding pass to board even before the young children group. Southwest was very good about doing that. On my request, (booking and checking in) Southwest did not serve peanuts and asked that passengers not eat peanuts that they may have received on previous flights due to a passenger with severe peanut allergies.
The only problem was when my son touched a seat while heading to the bathroom and broke out in hives. Hands in pockets works well to prevent touching other seats!

kelly said...

great tips jenny! we just got back from our vaca as well. where did you go?

Anonymous said...

That's all great if your kids are young, but those of us with college age or soon to be college age kids who will fly alone at times, really need some more protections. Seating is very cramped and if someone next to my young FA adult pulled out a bag of peanuts or a PB &J it would be a problem. We need protections from the industry for the immediate seating around a FA person.

Jenny said...

Kelly, we were in sunny Ft Lauderdale and Miami! We even got lucky with good weather. :)

Jenny said...

Anonymous--It's not all that great. My child is growing up but still is not an adult and can't speak up for herself as well as an older individual can. Obviously the ideal is an airline without food allergens but that is not always possible. I would hope your college-age son will speak up for himself and alert the airline if he needs more steps taken to ensure his safety on a flight. Until all airlines change their peanut policies, we will have to work with what we are given.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great tips for flying! Would love a post on how you prepared for the restaurant meals on your trip. We're going on vacation for the first time this summer and would love your take.

Anonymous said...

We currently do the same things when we fly. My son has sensitive skin so we also have to ask when was the last time they cleaned the seats on the plane. His skin (from having contact with the seats) will develop a bright red rash (even on clothing covered skin)during the course of the flight if the seats have been recently sprayed with anything.

nh grampa said...

I was devastated a few years ago when I found out my grandson had tree nut/peanut allergies......fortunately he will not die if he accidentaly ingests a peanut as he has a low level allergy. As I was watching the evening news tonight, they did a story on pregnant mothers' diets. The story showed infants that liked green beans if mom ate green beans while pregnant and conversely infants that did not like green beans if mom didn't eat them---and a few other examples. I wonder what would happen if all pregnant mothers went out of their way to eat peanuts while pregnant. Would it perhaps reduce peanut allergies...........is anyone aware if tests/studies like this have ever been done? It is worth trying most anything to reduce/eliminate this life changing, all encompassing curse.

Jenny said...

Hi NH Grandpa--I love to hear from the grandparents, so thank you for commenting. Don't be devastated, allergies are not a curse they are manageable. Your grandson can have a great life, he just needs to be more careful about what he eats.

Regarding having moms eat peanut butter every day to prevent nut allergies, current studies show no proven link between maternal diet and food allergies in kids. I'm glad to hear that because on a personal note, I ate peanut butter nearly every day (and tree nuts often) with my first pregnancy and my daughter has severe allergies to both peanuts and tree nuts.

In the meantime, even with a "mild" allergy, please be careful about what you feed your grandson. Sometimes bad reactions can happen even with people who seem to have minor allergies.

Good luck to you both and thanks for commenting!
Best, Jenny

nh grampa said...

OK, Jenny.....so much for my theory on pregnant mothers' diets.........Thank you for your comment re your personal experience.
We are all "on our toes" with regard to my grandson's diet.......but no one is more cautious than he.
Any word on any new studies or tests etc that are being done to rid us of this curse?

Unknown said...

My 8 years old daughter is very allergic to peanuts/all tree nuts. We flew with TAP Portugal to Europe last week. Had booked thru United and did not realize the flight is operated by TAP till a day before. Contacted TAP and thanks to Mr. Reginald Jackson all steps were taken to make our TAP flights safe for my daughter. We had a great trip and traveled stress free knowing that there are no peanuts/nuts being served on all the flights. We thank the entire crew of TAP Portugal.Flying with TAP is the way to enter Europe for peanut/nut allergy sufferers. The crew explained the situation to each passenger and requested them not to consume nuts. This ensured that other passengers were not upset and were very willing to follow the request.