Updated Jan. 12, 2017: North America’s largest food allergy advocacy organization is taking on American Airlines for refusing to allow those with food allergies to pre-board flights to wipe down seating areas as a precaution against allergen exposures.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), calling American Airlines’ written policy that refuses pre-boarding to those with food allergies both discriminatory and a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.
“We are calling on the DOT to take enforcement action and calling for a full retraction of this discriminatory policy,” said Dr. James R. Baker, FARE’s CEO and chief medical officer. “We also request mandatory training for airline staff to help ensure they do not continue to discriminate against members of the food allergy community.”
The Access Act says that passengers with disabilities must be allowed to pre-board if they request additional time to board or be seated. FARE’s complaint contends that this includes food-allergic individuals since “a disability is defined as a substantial impairment to a major life activity (such as breathing or eating).”
“The law is clear – airlines must allow pre-boarding for individuals with food allergies who need to wipe down and secure their seating area,” said disability rights attorney Mary Vargas of Stein and Vargas, who is representing FARE.
“American Airlines, in denying this right, is in blatant violation of law. DOT must step in and take action,” she said. In late December, Vargas also filed a complaint with DOT on behalf of a family from Washington state, who were refused pre-boarding on their American Airlines flights, which they had requested because of their daughter’s multiple food allergies.
Families and individuals with food allergies often wish to wipe down an airplane seating area – from the seats to tray tables, armrests and window shades – to prevent exposure to allergen residue from passengers on previous flights. Vargas says it is extremely difficult to do this as passengers rush for their seats during general boarding. Pre-boarding was also identified as a factor in mitigating in-flight allergic reactions in a 2013 University of Michigan study.
American Airlines has told Allergic Living that it has not yet seen FARE’s complaint and so cannot comment on it. The allergy policy on the airline’s website says: “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.”
In an interview with Allergic Living, FARE’s CEO expanded on his organization’s reasons for asking DOT to step in to quash this pre-boarding restriction. “We saw American Airlines’ policy as a clear violation of the Air Carrier Access Act and something that was incredibly important to food-allergic families. We saw both a legal and a moral reason to try to change this. We felt that as the one organization that speaks globally for food-allergic people, we should weigh in.”
Baker notes that the wide variation in allergy policies among the airlines makes it difficult for passengers with food allergies to know what they’re getting when they book travel. “Some companies, like Delta and JetBlue, have very good and well-defined policies that allow flexibility for food-allergic passengers. But other companies, as exemplified by American Airlines, have very restrictive policies, that not only don’t make sense, but violate the law,” he said.
FARE also wants the airlines to develop consistent statements about what passengers can expect in relation to food allergy – “so they don’t show up one day and have no trouble on a flight and then are refused boarding by the same airline two or three days later.” His organization’s past efforts to work with an airline industry group on consistency of approach have not been successful.
In relation to the DOT complaint about American Airlines’ food allergy policy, Baker says this is the only medical condition the airline has singled out to be denied pre-boarding status.
“Anyone with a medical condition that requires some type of accommodation in boarding is allowed to pre-board. We feel that food-allergic passengers wanting to wipe down their seats certainly fits under this rubric – and they should be allowed to do it.”