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Allergy group demands pre-boarding for nut cases

January 19, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Cases of severe nut allergy should count as disabilities, with sufferers allowed to pre-board flights in the same way as people in wheelchairs or those with severe physical or mental impairments.

That’s the basis of a federal complaint filed against American Airlines by a food allergy advocacy group.

“The Air Carrier [Access] Act (ACAA) says anyone with any type of disability can pre-board to stabilise themselves on the aircraft before general boarding starts,” Dr James Baker, chief executive and chief medical officer of Food Allergy Research and Education (a non-profit advocacy group) told the Dallas Morning News.

Baker said the group’s complaint didn’t ask American not to serve nuts or any other type of food.

“All we want them to do is simply to remove the pre-boarding restriction for people with food allergies.”

Pre-boarding lets people with severe allergies wipe down their seats and tray tables before general boarding process begins, Baker explained.

The development highlights the predicament of airlines as allergies proliferate. Nut allergies can be deadly serious. For unknown reasons, allergies (not just to nuts) are on the increase around the world. Some 1.4% of all children in the US are allergic to peanuts. In the most severe cases, inhaling a tiny portion of nut dust can send a child into anaphylactic shock, which can prove fatal unless a dose of adrenaline is given – not always easy during flight.

American Airlines serves nuts (though not peanuts) on its flights but it can’t prevent passengers bringing peanuts aboard.

“Our planes are cleaned regularly, but these cleanings are not designed to ensure the removal of nut allergens, nor are our air filtration systems designed to remove nut allergens,” the airline’s policy reads. “We are unable to guarantee that customers will not be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during flight, and we strongly encourage customers to take all necessary medical precautions to prepare for the possibility of exposure.”

A family whose seven-year-old daughter suffers from multiple food allergies was denied a request to pre-board in December, triggering the complaint, Baker said.

The ACAA says airlines “must offer pre-boarding to passengers with a disability who self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board, stow accessibility equipment, or be seated”.

The act defines a person with a disability as a person with a “physical or mental impairment” that affects major life activities, including breathing. Eleven specific medical conditions are listed in the act and allergies are not among them.

In the US, airlines are bound to provide disability assistance when asked. If a passenger wants a wheelchair to fast-track a queue or pre-board, airline staff are not allowed to ask too many questions.

Here’s an extract from a question and answer bulletin produced for airlines by the US Department of Transportation:

Question: What recourse do carriers have when it appears that a passenger requesting wheelchair assistance is not disabled and is abusing the accommodation requirement by requesting such assistance in order to facilitate or expedite clearance through the security screening or customs and border protection checkpoint at the airport?

Answer: Given the great variety of disabilities, not all of which are immediately apparent to a casual observer, carriers should not assume that a passenger who requests wheelchair assistance but lacks a visible disability is necessarily abusing the service. It is permissible to ask a passenger about his or her disability as it relates to the need for wheelchair assistance. For example, carrier personnel could ask “How does the requested wheelchair service assist with your disability?” Avoid questions like “What is your disability?” The latter question implies that a carrier is asking for a medical label or for the cause of a disability, which would be intrusive and inconsistent with the intent of the ACAA. Part 382 requires that the specified accommodations be provided to all qualified passengers, even if this results in service being provided to an occasional person whose need for accommodations may be questionable.

Written by Peter Needham

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