Southwest Airlines has been serving peanuts on its planes since the company was founded—but that’s about to change. This week, the company announced it will stop serving peanuts on its flights to help protect customers with severe peanut allergies.
Although other airlines (such as United Airlines and JetBlue) already don't serve peanuts in flight, the new policy is a huge departure for Southwest, which has used peanuts as part of its marketing slogans for years, as USA Today pointed out. The company even used to have a blog called Nuts About Southwest.
“Peanuts forever will be part of Southwest’s history and DNA,” Southwest told SELF in a statement. “However, to ensure the best on-board experience for everyone, especially for customers with peanut-related allergies, we’ve made the difficult decision to discontinue serving peanuts on all flights beginning August 1.”
To make up for the change, the company now plans to offer free pretzels, as well as other complimentary snacks on longer flights. “Our ultimate goal is to create an environment where all customers—including those with peanut-related allergies—feel safe and welcome on every Southwest flight,” the statement continued. “We’ll miss the peanuts, but, at the end of the day, it’s our Southwest employees and the hospitality they deliver that set us apart, far more than peanuts ever could.”
For the record, peanut allergies are serious and potentially life-threatening.
A food allergy is a condition in which the immune system overreacts to a particular protein in a food, the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) explains. Coming into contact with even a tiny amount of the food can cause symptoms like a runny nose, hives, itching or tingling in or around the mouth and throat, diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, tightening of the throat, and shortness of breath or wheezing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But it's important to understand that, in some cases, food allergies can also cause anaphylaxis, a life-threatening medical emergency that causes airway constriction, swelling of the throat, a severe drop in blood pressure, a rapid pulse, and dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting, the Mayo Clinic says. (Peanut allergies are the most common cause of food-induced anaphylaxis.)
Anaphylaxis requires treatment with an epinephrine injector like an Epipen and a trip to the ER. Without those interventions, someone with a severe peanut allergy who is exposed could die.
“We have seen emergencies occur on aircrafts and deaths,” Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network and NYU Langone Health, tells SELF.
Yep, even just inhaling some floating peanut dust can be dangerous if you have a peanut allergy.
Of course, a person with a peanut allergy would have problems if they eat peanuts. But you can also come into contact with peanuts through cross-contamination in foods that were exposed to peanuts during processing or handling, or touching. Ingesting peanut proteins is usually what causes the most severe allergic reactions because those proteins get broken down by the stomach acids into smaller proteins that can then be absorbed into the bloodstream, William Reisacher, M.D., director of Allergy Services at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, tells SELF.
If you’re allergic to peanuts, you can have a reaction if you simply inhale dust or aerosols that contain peanuts, the Mayo Clinic explains. For example, peanut dust could get launched into the air when someone opens a bag of the snack. This is actually the most likely way that someone will have an allergic reaction to peanuts on a plane, Todd Mahr, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with Gundersen Health, tells SELF.
Some people have peanut allergies so sensitive that they can have a reaction just from touching peanut allergens, which can linger on surfaces for hours after they've been wiped if soap and water were not used, Dr. Parikh says. That's why it’s not always enough to just ban peanuts on a particular flight if someone with an allergy is flying. And even if a peanut-allergic person doesn't have a severe reaction from peanuts in the air, "the smell alone could make that person feel very nervous or ill," Dr. Reisacher says.
If you have a peanut allergy, it’s important to be prepared for the worst—just in case.
That means carrying (ideally) two epinephrine injectors with you at all times because “often one Epipen is not enough in severe reactions or one may malfunction,” Dr. Parikh says. And, if possible, put one in the seat pocket in front of you when you fly so that it’s easily accessible. It’s also a good idea to let the airline know about your allergy ahead of time so the crew does not serve peanuts, she says, noting that airlines can also make pre-boarding announcements so that no one brings peanuts onto the plane.
Even if you know the airline you're flying with won't be serving peanuts, it's a good idea to wipe down your seat, tray table, arm rests, and anything else you may touch with a wet wipe or Clorox wipe just in case the person sitting there before you had peanuts or a product that contains them, Dr. Mahr says. And try to bring your own snacks on board just to be sure you have something to eat if you get hungry that you know doesn't contain peanuts.
As for everyone else, think before eating peanuts and peanut products in public—especially if you’re in an enclosed space, like a plane. It could have a bigger impact on someone's health than you realize.