July 13, 2024

Flying with Allergies

Julianne Ponan MBE, CEO of Creative Nature, discusses the passenger journey aboard aircraft from the perspective of a severe allergy sufferer...

Airlines do not prevent wheelchair users from flying, so why should people living with severe allergies be denied boarding? Unfortunately, that happens. I’d like to see airlines make changes to be more accommodating to passengers with severe allergies.

For many passengers, plane journeys are a source of anxiety and stress. I have the added fear of potentially coming into contact with foods I am severely allergic to – they could trigger a fatal reaction mid-flight.

Knowing you’re going to get a safe meal on board should be a right, not a privilege. Free-from food isn’t a lifestyle choice for those of us who have severe allergies. Allergies aren’t a diet choice. People like me have to live with them every day.

Flying with food allergies

Two children in every class of 30 now have a food allergy. So the odds are that people on every flight that takes off will be allergic to a variety of ingredients.

Catering for major allergens on flights is the morally right thing to do. As more passengers fly, it has the potential to increase an airline’s revenue. A recent survey of 4,700 passengers* with allergies found that more than 75% would stay loyal to an airline after a positive experience.

“The trend for special meals is increasing in general as customers become more aware and more health conscious and of course as allergies increase,” says Melanie Berry, Director of Customer Experience at Iberia.

“Every customer wants to feel that their individual needs matter. They want to feel safe and cared for. When an airline can proactively and consistently demonstrate its care towards all customers and their individual needs, the appreciation is reciprocated and loyalty builds,” comments Audrey Hart, Senior Manager – F&B and Ancillaries, Inflight Services at Virgin Atlantic.

Preparing to fly

I always check an airline’s allergy policies online before booking. In my experience, some airlines don’t take allergies seriously – refusing to guarantee that meals are nut-free and serving nuts on flights.

Simply asking to pre-board to wipe down seats can be too much on some airlines. This makes it difficult for passengers with severe food allergies.

By contrast, airlines such as easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and Iberia choose to make a positive difference. This results in higher satisfaction among passengers with severe allergies.

“Our special meal programme is present at multiple key stages of our customers’ journeys. At the browsing and booking stage, our customers can discover the meals we offer to suit their personal requirements via our website’s dedicated page,” says Hart.

“Should their requirements be more complex, customers can reach out to our Special Assistance team for guidance and support. Pre-flight, customers can select from 16 special types. All our special meals are designed in adherence to strict technical guidelines produced by Medina Quality for the QSAI group of airlines and rail operators and as IATA’s official food safety partner. Our caterers are regularly audited to ensure full compliance to technical specifications,” adds the senior manager.

Actions before flying

I contact my carrier directly, to inform them of my allergies and flight details. Then I let the check-in staff, boarding team and flight crew know my allergies and where they can find my EpiPens in case of an allergic reaction.

“On every flight, we carry EpiPens in our doctors’ kits – if the customer has advised us in advance of any allergies the crew will ask the customer if they are carrying their own EpiPen and will also do a special announcement to advise customers that we have a customer onboard travelling today with a severe allergy,” outlines Berry.

I request to board early, so I can wipe down my seat and the surfaces of my surroundings. Doing so provides assurance that there are no traces of peanuts or nuts. Some airlines are supportive by adding special assistance on their boarding cards. It’s possible at the booking stage with easyJet, which allows people to state if they have a nut allergy.

“Air travel is very complex…allowing customers to pre-board to wipe down the seats requires the aircraft to be ready for departure. This is not so easy as often the turnaround time is very tight and the aircraft is being cleaned right up until boarding starts and the crew are completing the safety checks,” explains Iberia’s Berry.

Global regulations and standards

Globally, allergen regulations are not aligned. This results in a complex network of standards for airlines to navigate and adhere to across their route networks.

As Hart points out: “Change for one airline might not be as impactful if it is done in silo and not emulated by others so that throughout their connected journeys across multiple operators, customers can have a harmonized experience without complexity. Global allergen standards and regulations and a global set of special codes and technical definitions would be a good point to start embedding change on a large scale and with cohesion and constancy.”

“The world has changed since the IATA special meal codes were developed, it’s definitely time for a complete review – to ensure that they are aligned with customers’ changing needs. We categorise special meals into three groups – religious, medical and lifestyle choice special meals. There is no specific allergen-free meal in the current list of special meals, which given the changing trend is something that has to change quickly,” suggests Berry.

“Meeting customers’ expectations with special meals is difficult as they are very complex and we can never guarantee that the meals are allergen-free. We uplift catering all over the world and the standards and legislation around allergens are very different, plus all our suppliers the majority of the allergens daily so there is always a risk of cross-contamination or traces,” she adds.

Introducing positive changes

Airline caterers need to have more focus on allergy controls, to eliminate ‘may contain’ warnings and provide allergy-safe meals.

The booking process could be made more inclusive by providing drop-down menus allowing people with allergies to select any of the 14 major allergens that can lead to anaphylaxis and other life-threatening situations.
Japan Airlines and easyJet have already banned nuts onboard. This is a move that won’t harm anyone but could save the lives of tree nut and peanut allergy sufferers. As food allergies become more prevalent and allergy-related deaths are reported more frequently, now is the time for airlines to make positive changes to prevent further fatalities.

Creative Nature (creativenaturesuperfoods.co.uk) produces snacks free from the top 14 allergens.

*Warren, C. et al (2023) ‘Understanding experiences, barriers and facilitators of safe airline travel – a global survey of food allergy patients and caregivers’, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 151(2).