Peanuts on a plane.
For a lot of people, that’s a more frightening scenario than snakes on a plane.
And a lot more likely.
And as I wrote in my msnbc.com column this week – Passengers peeved about peanuts on airplanes – a lot of travelers think the best way to enhance airline passenger protections is to ban peanuts on planes.
Through September 23rd, the Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking public comment on a wide range of issues affecting airline passengers. Everything from peanuts on planes to involuntary bumping policies to surprise baggage fees.
Of the nearly 1,300 public comments submitted so far, the majority are focused on peanut allergies.
One problem though.
Technically, DOT doesn’t have the authority to change in-flight peanut policies. That’s because an appropriations law from 2000 prohibits the agency from passing peanut rules until a scientific study proves a rule change will actually benefit airline passengers with allergies. And no such study has been completed or commissioned.
Still, the agency is trying to gauge public opinion on ways to handle in-flight peanuts.
“We haven’t said we won’t do anything,” said DOT spokesperson Bill Mosely. “We haven’t ruled anything in or out. So we still do want to hear public comments about peanuts. We plan to read and review them all.”
The problem with flying peanuts
Peanut allergies among children have tripled between 1997 and 2008, and peanut allergies, tree-nut allergies, or both, are reported by 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 million people, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a group that supports discontinuing serving peanuts on planes.
The fear of having a severe reaction from exposure to peanuts while locked inside an airplane keeps some allergy sufferers grounded. Under DOT’s rules, passengers with severe peanut allergies have a qualifying disability covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign carriers against individuals with disabilities.
As far back as 1988, DOT advised airlines to make reasonable accommodations for passengers disabled by their peanut allergies. Most airlines voluntarily comply, but no formal rules have been put in place.
Now, DOT is asking the public to comment on three alternatives to accommodate peanut-allergy sufferers on airplanes:
- Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights;
- Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy requests it in advance, or;
- Require airlines to establish a peanut-free buffer zone for passengers with severe peanut allergies.
DOT is also asking the public to comment on how peanuts and peanut products carried on board by passengers should be handled.
Peanut protections for airline passengers
If you’ve got a problem with peanuts, here’s what you need to know:
AirTran, Alaska/Horizon, American, Continental, JetBlue and United are among the major domestic airlines that do not serve peanuts. However, most airlines also post notices saying they can’t promise that some items served on board won’t contain nut products or that other passengers won’t bring their own nut products on board.
Two domestic airlines continue to ladle out legumes.
In 2009, both Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines served about 92 million bags of peanuts. “That does sound like a lot of nuts,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, “But the airline portion of the overall U.S. peanut business is really very small.”
If alerted, Delta Airlines will accommodate a passenger with a peanut allergy by creating a peanut-free buffer zone for three rows in front of and three rows behind their seat. The airline’s website also notes that when advised that a passenger with peanut allergies is flying, “Gate agents will be notified in case you’d like to pre-board and cleanse the immediate seating area.”
And while Southwest Airlines can’t guarantee a nut-free airplane, it will suspend peanut service on an entire flight if a passenger with an allergy requests it. See Southwest’s peanut dust allergy page for more information.
Want to share your thoughts about peanuts-on-planes? You can leave a comment below.
You can also file comments for the DOT to read (through September 23, 2010) here.