American Airlines is taking another step in the right direction to make air travel safer for people with nut allergies.
The airline recently announced that, starting on December 12, it will allow passengers with nut allergies to board their flights early in order to give them time to wipe down their seats, tray tables, and other surfaces. "Customers with nut allergies who would like to board flights early to wipe down surfaces may ask to do so at the gate," a representative from the airline told TODAY. "Though we do not serve peanuts in flight, we can't guarantee our customers won't be exposed to peanuts or other tree nuts during their trip."
Other airlines have also taken steps to help keep their customers safe. Southwest stopped serving peanuts (which were historically touted as a huge part of the budget airline's customer experience) earlier this year. A number of other airlines (including American, United, and JetBlue) also don't serve peanuts in flight. And Delta already allows its passengers with nut allergies to pre-board their flights.
While it may seem like a small measure for an airline to take, it could possibly help prevent allergy-related emergencies on a plane.
An estimated 15 million Americans are currently living with food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). A food allergy is a condition where the immune system reacts when you come into contact with a particular food, triggering symptoms that range from digestive problems or an itchy mouth, to hives or trouble breathing, depending on the severity of the allergy. Even a very small amount of an allergy-causing food can trigger symptoms, the Mayo Clinic explains. And for people with severe food allergies, coming into contact with the allergen may cause a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
Trace amounts of nut allergens can certainly linger on airplanes, and just because an airline doesn't offer peanuts, passengers can still bring a snack with peanuts (and other kinds) on board themselves. "We have found that allergens can stay on surfaces [like] tray tables, so the option to be seated and clean the area properly can be helpful to patients and their families," Purvi Parikh, M.D., allergist/immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, tells SELF.
What's more, serious food allergies can become even more dangerous in the air, because those that require immediate attention may not be able to get it at 30,000 feet. "If someone is having a life-threatening reaction in flight, they need emergency treatment immediately," says Dr. Parikh. "Moreover, an enclosed space may continue to keep them in contact with allergy. Luckily inhalational reactions are rare, but reactions through touch or contact can occur."
In addition to ridding flights of nuts and giving at-risk passengers the option to board early, airlines can be doing even more to keep their customers safe.
"We would love to see epinephrine auto-injectors on all flights, which is not currently mandated," says Dr. Parikh. "Some patients have reactions for the first time on an airplane, so they may not have a device with them. We are currently advocating for legislation that mandates all airlines [have them]."
If you are flying with a nut allergy, Dr. Parikh suggests taking further precautions to ensure a safe and pleasant flight (or at least, as pleasant as turbulence and budget airlines allow for these days). Let the airline know about your allergy ahead of time, bring your own food, and keep your epinephrine device in the seat pocket directly in front of you so that it's easy to access in case of an emergency. And, if you're flying American Airlines, board first and wipe down every inch of your seating area.