February 24, 2024

Taking food allergies seriously

Food-hypersensitive (FHS) passengers – people with severe allergies – need to see clear and consistent policies from airlines. This will help save lives but also makes sense for airlines too. 

When things go wrong FHS passengers can become very ill or even die. Survivors who have had a poor experience share those experiences on social media, which can be potentially damaging to an airline’s image. 

Statistics from 12,000 flights indicate that medical emergencies occur on almost one in every 600 flights. Approximately 7.3% of those have to divert and land at an alternative destination. Of those, around 40% are due to severe allergic reactions. 

In 2017 Emirates revealed that each diversion cost between $50,000 and $600,000. Making changes will clearly save money as well as saving lives. 

In my view, too little is done by airlines to give FHS passengers the confidence to travel safely. Typically, however, FHS passengers are willing to travel an additional 45 to 60 minutes and pay more to fly with their airline of choice. These passengers tend to share their positive experiences and stay loyal to companies that are considerate of their needs. 

Being able to contact an airline prior to flying is key but currently seems difficult. Making contact in advance is also no guarantee information will be communicated appropriately. 

The World Allergy Organisation (WAO) has recommended that all airlines remove nuts from menus. However, that recommendation has been broadly ignored. Good practice would be for airlines to emphasise their allergy policy at the time of booking. Pre-departure emails, messages printed on tickets and onboard announcements should then be used to remind passengers of the policy. 

Airlines should consider all aspects of the passenger journey in their allergen management policy. 

During the booking process, FHS passengers should be able to book meals and cabin baggage to bring food and medicine onboard. Then at the gate, priority boarding for FHS passengers would mean they have time to clean the area surrounding their seats. 

Snacks given out should not contain nuts or gluten and cabin crew should have adrenaline pen training in case of need. 

Introducing food safety guidelines which consider the needs of FHS passengers would be a step that helps satisfy customers and save lives. 

Caroline Benjamin founded Food Allergy Aware (foodallergyaware.co.uk) to help hospitality providers support FHS customers.