In another reminder of why airlines should stop serving and passengers should stop eating peanuts on flights, a United flight from SFO bound for Singapore diverted to Honolulu HNL, reportedly due a passenger's anaphylactic allergy to peanuts. The flight, which departed SFO at 11:21pm on 9/3, was already northwest of Hawaii when the pilots, in response to the life threatening emergency, diverted to Hawaii, landing in Honolulu at 4:53am HST on 9/4, a little over 8 hours after departing from SFO. The flight, likely due to crew rest issues, didn't depart HNL until over 19 hours later, at 12:13am, eventually landing in Singapore at 6:03am on 9/6, only a half hour earlier than the United flight that departed a day later, on 9/4.
While United does not serve pre-packaged peanuts on its flights, it doesn't guarantee that other meals and snacks are allergen-free. And as with other airlines, United Airlines can't prevent other passengers from bringing peanuts on board. As we noted in Best and Worst Airlines for Peanut and Nut Allergies, only on United flights to and from Canada (due to Canadian law) can passengers with a severe allergy notify the flight crew and request a buffer zone to be created, requesting passengers seated in the buffer zone.
Unfortunately for passengers with life-threatening allergies, United Airlines doesn't provide a buffer zone on non-Canadian flights. It's not yet clear what the circumstances were with the passenger in question.
Why are Airlines so Far Behind Schools?
Every school we've sent our son to has had a “no peanuts and no nuts” policy, due to the presence of students with anaphylactic peanut and/or nut allergies. If students can manage to do without peanuts and nuts for the ~1200 or more hours they're in school every year, why can't passengers? Most don't fly anything close to 1200 hours per year, and peanuts and nuts are such a small share of the available edibles on most flights. Most importantly, we're talking about a life-threatening allergen that could kill another passenger, vs. a minor inconvenience in not eating that allergen while on the flight.
Why Carrying Epinephrine Isn't Enough
Unfortunately, many passengers who don't have first-hand personal or familial experience with anaphylactic allergies don't understand the true life-threatening severity of such allergies. I know I wasn't fully aware of their severity until I met my husband, who has an anaphylactic allergy to bee stings and has to carry an EpiPen with him everywhere. Until your throat (or that of your loved one) starts constricting, you don't appreciate how scary it is.
You can tell when someone doesn't get it if they say something like “well, just always carry an EpiPen–what's the problem?” The problem is that the EpiPen just buys time; it delivers a shot of adrenaline that helps until the person can get emergency medical attention, which usually involves being monitored for five hours or longer by ER doctors, and potentially being given additional epinephrine, under constant supervision. When my husband had an anaphylactic reaction in Copenhagen, he was monitored for 8 hours at the Trauma Center before being released (see Medical Emergency? 5 Reasons Copenhagen Rules). That's why if someone is truly having an anaphylactic reaction on board a flight, a flight diversion is a prudent decision, even after epinephrine is administered, as a flight, even with medical doctors on board as passengers, can't compare to an ER in terms of equipment and resources. It also doesn't help matters that many flights don't even carry EpiPens, only epinephrine vials and syringes that are much harder to use in-flight than an auto-injector such as an EpiPen, which is designed to be easily self administered. Time is absolutely critical when it comes to administering epinephrine, so it makes no sense not to have it in the form that's easiest to administer, an auto-injector, and to have several EpiPens in an in-flight medical kit.
In fact, it's astounding that the FAA still doesn't require EpiPens in each aircraft's in-flight medical kit. The 1984 lawsuit by Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project led to a federal appeals court ruling that the FAA has jurisdiction to mandate the drugs and equipment that should be in these kits. Yet the FAA hasn't lifted a finger to require EpiPens on flights. How many flight diversions will it take to get the FAA's attention?
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