I like peanuts. That's why I can't help being a little bit sad every time I sit down on an airplane and get a bag of comparatively cardboard-like pretzels. Even knowing that the simultaneous action of 200 travellers struggling to open the little bags of in-flight peanuts could possibly generate enough peanut dust to kill someone with an extreme allergy stuck in the little space with recirculated air for the next several hours, I'm nostalgic.

Despite looking up just about every combination of words involving peanuts and flight on google.com, I've been unable to pinpoint exactly when peanuts became so well-entangled with the commercial flight industry. Perhaps they were in fact included on those first Boeing 707 flights in 1957. Even at their height, right before the 1998 fuss, peanut farmers acknowledge that the airline peanuts accounted for less than one percent of their total sales; even so, they were available on most domestic flights at least.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued instructions that all airlines were to declare at least three rows peanut-free zones for all flights including any medically-diagnosed peanut-allergy sufferer. This was to bring policy in-line with the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act. Congress failed to grant financial support to enforce the directive, and Newt Gingrich denounced the Clinton administration's anti-peanut attitude, but most airlines chose to comply anyhow. Some of them even began advertising their lower fat snack foods.

While the peanut has made a small rally due to support from those who love it, it will probably never regain its former ascendency. Alas for the poor peanut, but I suppose it's a Very Good Thing not to kill anyone with your snackfood.

Cry me a river.

{When you're allergic to a common food like peanuts, food is not a signifier of bounty and goodness, but the potential cause of your painful death. This applies to all food, because peanuts are in practically everything. It's not comforting when people hand you foods and say, "oh, there aren't any peanuts in this," either. People will say this about practically anything that doesn't have whole peanuts prominently sprinkled on top. Granola bars? Bread from factories that process peanuts? Thai curry, possibly not containing peanuts as an ingredient but definitely prepared in a kitchen where crushed peanuts are flying around like dust in a Saharan sandstorm? "Oh, there aren't any peanuts in this." ALL POISON. I can only imagine how horrible it must be to be allergic to SOY!, which is in even more things. Avoiding peanuts is a full-time preoccupation.

And then there's the stigma. Your friends all think you're paranoid as you assiduously read food labels. Eating out makes you nervous, and you always have to make a point of telling the management about your allergy. If you're a graduate student, it's even worse - you have to turn down free food at department events, which is practically a heresy. And you can forget about romance -- since it typically involves going out to dinner, which makes you nervous and forces you to foreground your allergy before you've even gotten started. No spontaneous kissing, either - studies have shown that kissing a person who's eaten peanuts in the last six hours can cause a reaction. Nothing kills a mood like anaphylaxis.}

When you're allergic to peanuts, it's annoying enough that one of your major biological processes, eating, is significantly more laborious and fraught with anxiety than it is for most people. You'd think your allergy wouldn't interfere with the rest of your life, though.

Until you try to fly.

Go ahead, mourn the death of the peanut as an airline snack. After all, United, US Airways, American, and AirTran no longer serve them. I applaud these airlines - they've made flying safer for us peanut-allergic people. Not that their snacks are peanut-safe, of course - I'd never eat them. But at least on those airlines I'm not likely to be suddenly surrounded by the inescapable dust of 200 peanut baggies. And some peanut-serving airlines, like Southwest, will make accomodations if you request them well in advance. But some airlines are entirely intractable, including Frontier, America West, and Continental. If you have a serious peanut allergy, do not fly these airlines, period.

"You aren't going to be forced to eat the peanuts, you know!"

Yes, moron, I know.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (www.foodallergy.org) recommends a number of steps:

  • Do not book your flights online; always book them on the phone, with a person, and make sure they understand that you are asking that peanuts not be served to the entire flight. Yes, this means you will miss out on those online deals. Forget about Travelocity. Flying will be more expensive for you; there is no way around this.
  • Reconfirm that there won't be peanuts served on the flight at every opportunity - when reserving your flight, before you leave the gate, when you change planes. Yes, you will get rude stares and be treated like a space alien or a paranoid whiner. It's better than having a reaction mid-air.
  • Bring your own food (obviously). The airline food will almost certainly not be safe.
  • If you (or your child) are contact-sensitive, bring some disposable baby wipes so you can wipe down the armrests and table tray.
  • If you are going somewhere where you will need to bring your own food, be aware that your checked bags may be scrutinized more carefully than usual, since the Transportation Security Administration asks travelers to "avoid packing food and drink items in checked baggage."
  • You can (and should) bring your EpiPen with you as long as it has "a professionally printed label identifying the medication or the manufacturer's name" on it. FAAN also recommends that you bring a note from your doctor explaining what it is and why you need it.
  • If you experience a reaction, tell the flight crew immediately so they can land the plane before you, you know, die.

Food allergies are considered a disability under Department of Transportation guidelines, so if you feel that you have been discriminated against due to your allergy, you have the right to (and should) file a complaint with the Aviation Consumer Protection Division. You can find the form at


I'm delighted that some airlines have policies that protect the rights of peanut-allergic persons. This is a huge step. But ignorance is still widespread, and most people still don't recognize the seriousness of food allergies. I dream of a day when I can safely reserve cheap flights, or request a peanut-free flight without having to explain what anaphylaxis is. The world would do well to heed k-tron's words, that "it's a Very Good Thing not to kill anyone with your snackfood." Word.

Update: ATA has now, I believe, gone peanut-free, for which I want to hug them. Figuratively.

Sources: http://www.foodallergy.org/Advocacy/airlines.html and personal experience
Partially written in frustration at noticing the Ching!s on k-tron's writeup above, given that peanuts kill, dammit, but mainly meant to educate, and written in full recognition that k-tron wasn't actually advocating personally burdening me.

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