How to Deal With Allergies When Flying

Sufferers have rights, but so do others – for airlines, it’s a tricky situation

By Eric Heyl

Published February 3, 2020

Read Time: 3 mins


When 200 people are packed into an airplane’s cramped confines, competing interests can quickly arise.

People allergic to animal dander or saliva can experience “fur of flying” if seated near someone with a service or emotional support animal. Those with nut allergies probably recoil when the person in the adjacent seat starts eating a peanut butter granola bar.

Allergy sufferers have rights while flying, but so do passengers with support animals and people who pack products containing peanuts for a snack. What happens in such situations?

Jenna Riemenschneider, director of advocacy for the Maryland-based Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, said passengers with allergies and service animals both are protected by the Americans With Disabilities and the Air Carrier Access acts.

“There is equal protection,” she said. “We just wish it would be more uniformly managed. Based on anecdotal evidence, things seem to vary based on the airline or the flight attendant you’re dealing with.”

Riemenschneider said the foundation has heard of extreme instances in which allergic passengers have been removed from flights after complaining about being seated next to a service or emotional support animal.

Spokespersons for Southwest and American, the airlines that handle nearly half of the travelers at Pittsburgh International Airport, declined to be interviewed on how they deal with such conflicts. But like all airlines, both have clearly defined policies and guidelines on their websites.

Southwest, for example, doesn’t serve peanuts on flights but says it can’t prevent passengers from bringing peanuts or products containing them onto its flights.

Dr. Leonard Bielory, a New Jersey allergist and a Fellow at the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, said it’s not unusual for people with peanut allergies to become unnerved if the passenger next to them starts eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But Bielory said there’s no need to panic in such situations, because they pose no medical risk.

“The worry since the peanut allergy craze started is that someone can get anaphylaxis from the peanut proteins floating through the air,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is that they do not aerosolize.”

Nevertheless, American Airlines crews will alert passengers to a flier with a serious peanut allergy and ask them not to open packages containing nuts or peanuts.

While Bielroy downplayed the peanut risks on planes, he said that animals definitely can cause problems for allergic passengers.

“With dogs, [the allergen] primarily is in the saliva, and if they’re drooling a person could come in direct contact with it,” he said. “They could develop hives, they could start sneezing, they could get watery eyes.”

But who should be moved in such situations: the allergic passenger or the one with the service animal?

“That’s up to the airline,” Riemenschnieder said.

Southwest’s website states that as long as a passenger notifies its workers at the departure gate of allergy issues, the airline will seat the person as far away from any service animal as possible. American also advises passengers to notify airline workers of any potential allergy issues.

Federal law requires airlines to transport service and emotional support animals accompanying customers with disabilities. But potential changes to regulations could result in fewer emotional support animals on flights in the future.

In January, the federal Department of Transportation released proposed new rules that would allow airlines to begin treating emotional support animals as pets. If approved, only qualified service dogs would be allowed onboard at no extra fee.

Unsurprisingly, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation supports the rule change.

“While we don’t think the overall rule goes far enough, it would benefit those with asthma and allergies,” Riemenschneider said. “It probably would cut back on the fraudulent use of emotional support animals.”

For details on individual airline allergy policies, click on the link.

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