United Airlines: Nut Allergy Gets Passenger Thrown Off Plane

United Airlines Nut Allergy

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Flying United Airlines with a nut allergy? You may want to reconsider. A former United frequent flyer (who no longer books United due to this incident) was kicked off a United flight operated by Commuteair from Huntsville Alabama to Washington Dulles after she had taken her seat and mentioned her anaphylactic allergy to the flight attendant. We've listed United as one of the worst airlines for peanut and nut allergies.

According to the passenger's DOT Complaint, “The flight attendant immediately became hostile and began berating me. She questioned whether I should be flying and said that she did not want to have to “epi” me. She raised her voice at me, “Are you sure you can fly? Do you want to die
in the sky?”

The passenger, a United frequent flyer who had previously disclosed her severe food allergy to United, tried to explain to the flight attendant that she, the passenger, flew United often, but the flight attendant continued to berate her, before finally walking away and getting the gate agent involved. The gate agent insisted that the passenger leave the plane, claiming that she hadn't disclosed her nut allergy on her travel reservation. Neither the flight attendant nor gate agent listened to the passenger's assertion that her food allergy was disclosed to United when making the reservation.

Instead of taking her booked flight, which she needed to take in order to pick up her child from camp the next day, the woman was stranded, with no other United nonstop flights to Washington, DC that day, and had to book a last minute one way car rental that totaled $1053.08. Given the over twelve hours of overnight driving, she didn't think she could safely drive the entire route on her own, so her husband flew from Chicago to Nashville, she picked him up there, and they completed the drive to DC together to be able to arrive in time to pick their child up from camp. They incurred a total of $1427 in costs due to United's refusal to transport the woman.

When the woman requested a refund for the flight and reimbursement for her travel expenses, United agreed to refund her $730.20 ticket price and offered to pay only $300 toward the additional expenses. Not finding this to be a reasonable resolution, and in particular concerned about her access to future travel and treatment as an allergy sufferer, the woman filed a DOT Complaint, and obtained legal representation by Mary Vargas, a Washington, D.C.-based disability rights attorney. Her goal: ensure that anyone traveling with food allergies will be treated with respect and won’t be discriminated against. “In this instance, I was bullied and retaliated against, and shamed.”

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The Complaint: United Violated the Air Carrier Access Act and Air Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights

The Air Carrier Access Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41705, provides that an air carrier…may not discriminate against an otherwise qualified individual based on the individual's physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Since anaphylactic allergies directly impact breathing (when a person ingests, or sometimes even inhales aerosols of the allergen, his/her throat can constrict and lead to death), these severe allergies are a physical impairment. It seems clear that if the facts are as put forth in the complaint, United Airlines discriminated by not permitting the passenger to fly.

An air carrier may only refuse to transport a passenger on the basis of disability if the passenger poses a “direct threat” (a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices, or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or services). Clearly that is not the case with an allergy sufferer, whose risk is his/her own health, and doesn't pose a threat to others. And even the risk to the allergy sufferer's health is so easily eliminated in a case such as this passenger's, by either asking if she's able to keep a face mask on the entire time (the flight is <2 hours) and/or asking passengers seated around her not to consume nuts.

The U.S. Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights enumerates the rights passengers have, pursuant to the Air Carrier Access Act and its implementing regulations. Its Section 1, The Right to Be Treated with Dignity and Respect, states the following, bolding ours:

  • An airline may not refuse transportation or other services because of one’s disability or resulting appearance or involuntary behavior
  • An airline cannot require air travelers with disabilities to accept special services or subject them to restrictions that do not apply to other passengers, except passengers with disabilities may need to check-in early, provide advanced notice or documentation, or pre-board to receive certain disability-related services.
  • Airline personnel who deal with the traveling public must be trained to be aware of passengers with disabilities’ needs and how they can be accommodated safely and with dignity.

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United Isn't the Only Airline Passengers with Nut Allergies Should Avoid

The United incident in the complaint occurred in June 2022, but as recently as September 2022, a United flight to Singapore diverted to Hawaii due to a deadly peanut allergy. But as we wrote in Nut Allergy? Don't Fly Turkish Airlines, Turkish Airlines continues to throw passengers with nut allergies off its flights, even when they've taken the time to notate their allergy at time of booking or well before the flight. Qatar has done the same, and in fact none of the Middle Eastern airlines, including Emirates and Etihad, are good about accommodating peanut allergies or nut allergies.

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Will Incidents Like These Mean More Allergy Sufferers Don't Disclose?

Is it any wonder that we know people with anaphylactic allergies who don't disclose them, for fear of having the experience that the complainant did? The other approach is the one of a tweeter, who wrote “I often don't disclose my allergy until the plane is in the air. I don't understand why people in the airline industry can have such discrimination against nut allergy travelers who don't want anything special, just for the airline to follow their own policy.”

Either way, the result could mean more planes having to divert, as the United plane did to Hawaii (causing a nearly 24 hour delay in arrival to Singapore) in case of a true anaphylactic emergency, simply because airlines aren't honoring their obligation to accommodate allergy sufferers and aren't properly training their crews that anaphylactic allergies count as disabilities to be accommodated, not berated. And let's not even get into the fact that most U.S. airline emergency kits don't have EpiPens or a similar auto injector, only epinephrine and syringes that have to be administered by a medical professional.

We hope that this DOT Complaint will result in the requested relief, including United Airlines admitting it discriminated against the plaintiff for disclosing her disability and thorough training of all United Airlines employees, including crews of regional carriers such as Commutair that operate as United Airlines so that they don't remove allergic passengers. It's a shame the U.S. doesn't have Canada's rule that requires airlines to establish a buffer zone around your seat if you notify the airline at least 48 hours before your flight and carry a medical certificate with you that attests to your allergy and your ability to fly.

In the meantime, if you do have an anaphylactic allergy and plan to disclose it to the airline, we highly recommend obtaining a note from your doctor or allergist stating that you are able to fly commercially. It could come in handy to show to to untrained flight crew.

If you or someone in your family has an anaphylactic food allergy, do you inform the airline or not, due to the risk of being thrown off the plane?

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John
John
1 month ago

Agree that United acted shamefully here, but in terms of adding epipens to first aid kits, shouldn’t individuals with allergies carry these items themselves? I wouldn’t rely on anyone else to have one if I knew it was the difference between life and death.