Once upon a time, I was blissfully unaware that allergies can kill.
Then, when I was cabin crew for a while after graduating university, I learnt about anaphylaxis, and what to do if it happened onboard. I dreaded this taking place on my watch, but if I’m honest, I still lacked an awareness of what it’s like to live with the constant grave threat allergies pose to their sufferers.
That was until my second baby reacted to a tiny piece of scrambled egg at six months old. He was diagnosed with an egg allergy, so when it came to his first Birthday, we made him an egg free cake. Minutes after eating a tiny piece, his lips swelled, face puffed up un-recognisably, hives broke out in a rage all over his torso, and he became limp. It was terrifying – and not an ideal end to his Birthday.
The only thing we could identify as the potential cause were the decorative sprinkles on top of the cake which were labelled, “may contain traces of nuts and peanuts.” Sure enough, his allergy to peanuts, and a long list of other nuts was confirmed.
Nuts are not a necessity, especially at 35,000 feet
We were thrown into a world that felt like a constant threat to our baby. Every single time he ate something, I’d watch intently for signs of a reaction. Heart racing, anxiety flooding over me, I’d even think I saw the start of a reaction when there wasn’t.
Travel is in our blood, and we fly regularly as a family. The combination of planes and nuts opened a whole new can of worms (or should I say ‘jar of peanut butter’). Anaphylaxis in a remote environment, like a plane, is one of the most terrifying prospects of all.
Airlines can offer as many as 14 ‘special meals’, yet, nut allergy sufferers, who are often born with this chronic and life-threatening disease, have no safe option, and travel in fear of anaphylaxis, or even death.
How can this be, when allergy is the most common chronic disease in Europe, and one in 200 UK adults have a nut allergy?
While flying with a very well-known airline, our children were even given M&Ms as part of the child’s meal.
I love nuts, but they are something we can all live without for a few hours. There’s simply no need to serve or sell them during a flight, and it’s about time airlines thought up a new snack to accompany their drinks. It’s understandable that no airline can guarantee a nut-free environment, but they could be doing much more. Some airlines are leading the charge. Flybe, and easyJet, have taken a stand and banned the sale of nuts and nut-based products, as have Lufthansa, and Southwest Airlines in the US. Singapore Airlines even have a nut-free special meal, and Japan Airlines offers a ‘minimal allergen meal.’
The Amy May Trust petition for banning nuts on planes has gained 380,000 signatures, but when is the airline industry going to take a united stand once and for all, and have a blanket ban on nuts? Amy May, a beautiful woman who’s now 30, can no longer walk, talk, or see following a catastrophic reaction to just one bite of food containing nuts while on holiday. She’d been assured that her meal was nut free.
Although she wasn’t exposed to her allergen while onboard, the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse reinforced that if you’re going to go into anaphylactic shock, a plane is not where you want to be. Natasha’s parents have set up Natasha’s Foundation and have a clear vision to help cure people with allergies through funding and supporting pioneering allergy research.
While this brilliant work is underway, and airlines continue to evolve their approach to allergies (we hope), here are some top tips for traveling as safely as possible. This advice is a combination of our learnings along the way, and tips from the great community of allergy advocates on Twitter and Instagram. You’ll also find a useful list of links to some airline allergy policies.
A special mention goes to easyJet, flybe, Singapore Airlines and Japan Airlines for leading the way. While we’re giving special mentions, Disney has got allergies sussed. We’ve been to Disney World in Florida a number of times with our Son. Disney takes allergies extremely seriously, while still offering many food options for allergy sufferers. Marks and Spencer could learn a thing or two from them.
Top tips for travelling with allergies
Be well prepared before you reach the airport
- There’s a lot you can do before you travel to make your experience as calm as possible:
- Ensure you have a medical letter stating that you can carry your adrenaline auto-injectors and other allergy medication.
- Your medication must have their original prescription stickers attached. We once made the mistake of carrying Piriton that was over 100mls, and didn’t have a prescription sticker. It was confiscated at security. Just recently at Gatwick Airport security, we were asked to show our Son’s passport so the security staff could cross-check the information against his prescription label.
- Have all allergy medication in its own bag. Ours is a big washbag and we refer to it as the ‘allergy bag’. It doesn’t need to be in a clear plastic bag, like other liquids, but you’ll need to place the allergy bag on its own in a tray when going through security (it can’t be inside another bag).
- Check your airline’s allergy policy before flying, and call ahead to make them aware of your, or your child’s allergy.
- If your airline offers a nut-free meal, be sure to order in advance, as you won’t be able to choose this once on the plane.
Don’t stop telling people about your allergy until you’re sure they’ve got the message
- It’s all too easy to be a bit British about speaking up, in fear that you’re causing a fuss. You’re not! One major thing I’ve learned is that you really have to emphasise the seriousness of an allergy until you are sure you’ve been understood. For example, instead of saying, “I just wanted to let you know that my Son has a nut allergy”, I say, “My Son has a life-threatening nut allergy. Even if he eats the tiniest bit of nut, he could die.” Be sure to do this when you board the plane, both to crew, and passengers.
- Ensure the crew deliver the PA to make passengers aware that a passenger has a severe allergy. Any airline worth its weight in gold will do this. Don’t worry if you have to remind crew. The boarding phase is very busy, and they’ll appreciate the polite reminder.
Bring your own food for the plane, and beyond
- One of the biggest fears is coming into contact with your allergen. Dramatically reduce the risk by bringing your own food, and pack a few bits to see you through the first few hours at your destination while you figure out the food situation.
Always carry two adrenaline auto-injectors
- Some GPs still try to prescribe just one. Don’t let this happen. You need two in case a second dose is needed, medical help isn’t minutes away, or you’re administering it to someone else but accidentally inject yourself in the panic of the moment (this happens a lot).
Use translation cards, and Google translate
- To help break down language barriers, order translation cards online, or use Google Translate. We recently used Google Translate during a flight to Rome. The Italian passenger in front of us was eating M&M’s. Thanks to the power of technology, we were able communicate with each other, and he very kindly put the bag away.
Wear a medical wrist band – especially if you’re travelling alone
- A medical wrist band is a great way to alert strangers to your allergy, should you have a reaction. Archie’s Allergies has a selection to fit, infants, children and adults, and also sell great allergy awareness stickers.
- If you’re travelling alone, it’s essential to make fellow passengers, and crew aware of your allergy, and tell them where your medication is, should they need to use this on your behalf.
Enjoy your travels!
- It’s easy to become so focused on staying allergy safe (which is obviously crucial) that you forget to have a good time. There’s a big, beautiful world out there, and it’s there to be experienced and explored.
Snapshot view of airline allergy policies
|Airline||Allergy policy overview||Allergy policy|
|American Airlines||Although American Airlines don’t serve peanuts, they do serve other nut products (such as warmed nuts) and there may be trace elements of unspecified nut ingredients, including peanut oils, in snacks.|
Other customers can bring peanuts and other nut-based snacks onboard.
American Airlines can’t accommodate requests not to serve certain foods, or to provide “nut buffer” zones.
|British Airways||In-flight meals don’t contain peanuts or peanut products.|
However, meals are made at a facility that handles peanuts, so BA can’t offer a peanut free special meal.
Peanuts may be served as a snack at airport lounges.
Tree nuts may be offered in the in-flight menu.
Passengers with allergies can pre-board the aircraft to wipe down their seat area (must show medical letter for carrying adrenaline auto-injector).
|easyJet||easyJet has banned the sale of nuts on flights to protect passengers with allergies.|
The airlines will also ban passengers from eating nuts on-board if a passenger has an allergy.
|Emirates||Nut-free special meals are not available, and nuts are served on all flights, either as an ingredient, or an accompaniment to drinks. Therefore Emirates recommends bringing your own meal onboard if you have a nut allergy.|
Other passengers can bring products onboard that may contain nuts, traces of nuts, and nut residue oils.
|Etihad||Etihad Airways cannot guarantee a cabin environment or food that will be free of specific allergens.|
Special, non-allergic food arrangements must be made by the guest.
|flyBe||flyBe has removed nuts and nut-based products from their onboard menu.||BE policy|
|Japan Airlines||From September 2014, the JAL Group eliminated peanuts and peanut-oil from in-flight meals on all international and domestic flights, and the food and drink menu that is offered in JAL operated domestic and overseas lounges.|
However, they cannot guarantee that peanuts have been completely removed from the cabin since, in addition to the possibility of cross-contamination during the manufacturing process they can’t restrict passengers bringing nuts and peanuts onboard.
|Qantas||Qantas say they are aware of the challenges nut allergy sufferers face, and where possible seek to minimise the risk of exposure through; the removal of peanuts as bar snacks on all flights, and in all owned and operated airport lounges. Qantas also minimises the use of peanuts and peanut based products in their in-flight meals.|
There is an extensive range of in-flight meals that do not contain peanuts or other nuts.
Passengers may be served other nuts, including almond, cashew, and macadamia as snacks.
|Qatar||Qatar say they do their best to accommodate passengers with special allergy needs.|
However, as their flights are open to the public, they cannot guarantee an allergen free environment.
|Ryanair||Passengers with nut allergies are asked to inform a member of the cabin crew when they board the plane, and a PA will be made, advising other customers that no nuts will be served onboard.|
While passengers will be asked not to consume nuts onboard, Ryanair cannot guarantee a nut free cabin.
|Singapore Airlines||A nut free special is available that does not contain peanuts or tree nuts (including almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, and their derivatives). Passengers must request a nut-free meal at least 48 hours prior to departure.|
Singapore Airlines does not serve peanuts as snacks to economy passengers (as of April 2018) BUT meals with peanuts and/or others nuts are served in other classes of service.
Singapore Airlines cannot provide a nut-free cabin or guarantee an allergy free environment onboard, as other passengers may be served meals including nuts, or may bring products onboard that contain nuts.
|Virgin Atlantic||Peanuts are never knowingly included in any in-flight meals.|
However, meals are not made in a nut-free environment so may contain traces of nuts.
All other nuts may be served in in-flight meals.
Virgin Atlantic can’t stop passengers bringing nuts onboard, and consuming them.