Airlines: The Great Snack Debate

in Guest Column
Published: July 2, 2010

No one should have to go through what my two kids and I have just gone through.

We’re the people you may have heard about in the news. On February 15, we got tossed off a Mexicana Airlines flight simply because I’d asked that the attendants not serve peanuts. I’m at risk of anaphylaxis to both peanuts and tree nuts, and distributing peanuts throughout an airplane could be dangerous to me. When I finally got home to Calgary, I complained to the media about the poor treatment that my children and I received while waiting for Mexicana to decide –over several hours – what to do with us. CBC-TV ran a news item, then posted my story online. The fallout has come as a complete shock.

There are now over 800 mostly vitriolic replies. Some people have wished I would choke on a peanut and die; I am getting hate mail at my home. I have been saddened and disturbed by the response of fellow citizens. They clearly don’t comprehend the seriousness of anaphylaxis. From the airline to online, I’ve been treated like a troublemaker. I’m actually anything but. I just happen to have a medical condition that requires the consideration of others.

I also feel my “real” story isn’t out there. So here, for the record is my recent travel experience as an allergic individual:

I BOOKED A FLIGHT to Mexico for myself and my two kids, aged 8 and 3 years old. I informed the booking agents that I have life-threatening allergies to peanuts and requested, in advance as I always have, that no peanuts be served on my flight. I was then told that to have this happen I should speak directly to the Mexicana flight staff upon boarding. As it was explained, there isn’t a real communication process that’s used to let the booking agents inform the flight attendants of this issue. And even if there was, I was told, it could get lost and besides, ultimately, it’s the flight attendants who are in charge of serving – and not serving – peanuts on a flight.

So my family and I board in Calgary to fly down to Puerto Vallarta on February 4. I ask the flight attendants as soon as we got on to please not serve peanuts. I’ve successfully made such a request many times on previous flights. These attendants did look a little confused by my request, but then said: “No problem, we can understand your situation.” We all get down to Puerto Vallarta safely and comfortably.

My family has a great two weeks in Mexico. On February 15, we get to the airport to leave to go home. We have a short flight from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City and then are to continue on from there to Calgary. My children and I board the plane, get to our seats. I tell a flight attendant right away that I am deathly allergic to peanuts and ask that for this 11/2-hour flight that they please not serve them. Mexicana crew all begin to tell me that it is their “right” to serve peanuts. I tell them that there is a possibility of me not being able to breathe.

More staff come by to tell me that they “have to” serve the peanuts. They offer me a seat at the back of the plane. I don’t think they realize that the entire plane will eat the peanuts – so it’s not a solution for me to be stuffed in the back, behind all the peanut-eating. This situation has now delayed the plane about 15-20 minutes. So a Mexican lady stands up in the middle of the plane and explains in Spanish my situation to the rest of the passengers. Then the flight attendant explains in English what my situation is. Passengers start saying to just not serve them the peanuts! One man yells out: “I can live without peanuts for an hour!”

So the flight staff all nod their heads and everyone is ready to go. Then the pilot makes the decision to ask my son, daughter and me to leave the plane. A lady behind me starts yelling that I am not listening to the staff about going to the back of the plane.

“I am waiting for them to tell me what
I have to do when a staff member yells
at me to get away from the plane.”

At this point, my children start to cry because there is a lady yelling at us and we are very rudely asked to get off the flight. So I pack up and we walk out of the plane. I am waiting for them to tell me what I have to do when a staff member yells at me to get away from the plane. We walk into the terminal and sit down on the floor in a lump, crying. The plane sits there for another 15 to 20 minutes while they rummage through the baggage hold for our bags. I’m sure people are missing connecting flights.

A staff member finally instructs us to go back to the check-in counter to see if there is another flight. We stand at the counter for an hour as agents are supposed to be trying to get us on a flight. Not one person from the airline speaks to us.

I finally demand to speak to the supervisor. Another 30 minutes later, an agent says Mexicana has booked us on a flight the next day – but they are not sure if the airline will fly us home because they “have to” serve the peanuts. We go to a hotel and an airline representative calls the room. They’ve switched us to another airline, but I’m told I have to get a letter from the doctor in Mexico by the morning explaining that I have a peanut allergy. How am I going to go to a doctor in Mexico in the next 10 hours, and how will he even know that I have an allergy? I told the representative this was a ridiculous request. She said she just wanted me to know I might have issues again without a medical note.

At no time during this entire situation did one person tell me they wanted to help me and my children, or that they were sorry this was happening. It felt like I was a criminal. My kids and I had to spend another night in Puerto Vallarta and the next day Mexicana got us on an American Airlines and we got home.

I’m not sure what is going to happen in regards to peanuts on airplanes. Many airlines that claim not to serve peanuts still offer mixed nuts bags for sale. I am deathly allergic to all peanuts and tree nuts – so this is a huge concern for me as someone who wants to be able to travel.

“I have never realized that I am hated
by a large part of the population”

I have had enough of this peanut issue and people’s “right to have their peanuts.” I am not asking that the plane be fumigated, or that the seats need to be shampooed. I am just asking that the packages of peanuts that are sitting in a small box are just not served on a particular flight. Here’s a thought: hand the customers their package of peanuts when they leave the plane … so they don’t miss out.

It hurt so much that total strangers were yelling at me and my children. After the abuse I’ve taken on the CBC site, I’m actually scared to tell anyone again that I am allergic to peanuts and nuts. I will now be very careful who I tell and who I don’t tell.

I have never realized that I am hated by a large part of the population – until I read those comments. There were a couple of days that I was waiting for a jar of peanut butter to be thrown through my window at home.

Having a peanut allergy is not a choice! We are born with it. Those of us with allergies don’t deserve to be subjected to hate mail and having people hate us because we are different.

I will fly again on an airplane again that doesn’t serve peanuts. But I will always remember the way that I was treated, the way I was made to feel. I do wish everyone here the best of luck dealing with their food allergies. Keep advocating because, there’s clearly a long way to go.