A celiac passenger (gluten allergy) chronicled her ordeal on a 15-hour Emirates flight after she was served a standard croissant. What’s the airline’s responsibility?
Gluten-y, not Gluten-Free
Not all journeys are smooth sailing. Such was the case for Chloë Chapdelaine, a 25-year-old content creator from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who had to endure what she described as “the worst flight of her life” on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Los Angeles on June 5.
Chloë lives with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition affecting approximately one in 100 people where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues in response to ingesting gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Its consumption leads to damage in the small intestine, disrupting the absorption of nutrients.
Those with diagnosed celiac disease pursue a gluten-free diet, but even those without a diagnosis can encounter issues when they eat gluten. Some are gluten sensitive which is more common in people and affects their body’s ability to absorb nutrients without all of the components of the autoimmune disease. Blood testing can identify immune responses and the risk of developing a broader condition, as well as ways to treat celiac disease and risk factors.
On her 15-hour flight, Chloë was served what was supposed to be a gluten-free breakfast. However, after eating half of a croissant that was part of the meal, she began to suspect something was amiss. The croissant tasted too good to be gluten-free, leading her to check with a flight attendant. To her dismay, she learned that the croissant was not gluten-free.
Chloë, who is highly sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, described going into shock and panic upon learning she had ingested gluten. She immediately rushed to the airplane lavatory, where she spent an hour trying to make herself vomit in order to prevent further damage to her body. But the ordeal was far from over. She experienced severe abdominal pain such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, and itchy skin, which she says often breaks out in hives or a rash after consuming gluten. Additionally, she anticipated the onset of mental effects like brain fog and depression that typically last several weeks after gluten exposure.
In a video posted on TikTok, Chloë shared her harrowing experience, emphasizing the serious health risks posed by gluten exposure for people with celiac disease. She also revealed that this wasn’t the first time she had encountered problems with in-flight meals. Despite her frequent travels, she’s often found that gluten-free meals are overlooked, and this incident marked the second time she was served gluten on a plane.
@chloe.chapdelaine I’m feeling defeated today. I often share about gluten free travel, but not the struggles. This stuff happens too often 🥺 did you spot the outlier? 🥐 @Emirates #glutenfreetravel #glutenfreelife #airplanefail #celiacdisease ♬ apathy (Sped Up) – Øneheart
Chloë’s experience highlights the challenges people with food allergies and sensitivities face when traveling. She noted that bringing one’s own food isn’t always an option due to travel restrictions and lack of access to kitchen facilities. Furthermore, she expressed frustration with what she perceives as a lack of seriousness regarding food allergies and intolerances on flights, comparing the treatment of celiac disease to that of nut allergies. She believes that the airline industry needs to be more diligent about catering to passengers with medical dietary restrictions and take their needs seriously.
In response to Chloë’s complaint, Emirates issued a statement expressing disappointment and assuring that the airline takes the safety and health of its customers very seriously. According to reports, Emirates stated that they aim to cater to all passengers’ specific needs with a range of special meals designed to meet various medical, dietary, and religious requirements. The airline confirmed that it is investigating the issue in response to Chloë’s outreach to their Customer Affairs team.
This incident underscores the importance of robust food safety and dietary accommodation protocols in the airline industry. It’s a stark reminder that for passengers with conditions like celiac disease, a simple mistake in meal preparation can have serious implications for the traveler. Further, had a diversion been required, the airline (as the provider of the catering) would have incurred high costs for the oversight.
What Is An Airline’s Responsibility?
Emirates flies about 55 million travelers annually or about 150,000 passengers daily. Most of its flights are long-haul, meaning that there are several meals per flight. Further, flying to more than 80 countries and nearly twice as many airports means that catering consistency and quality is a challenge.
However, as the airline that is selling a ticket including meals, it’s not a free extra. Just as airlines need to treat religious concerns and in the respect as allergies, there is a responsibility to ensure the meal is compliant as it is tagged and ordered. It would have been better to serve nothing at all than to serve something that causes discomfort.
I’d argue that unlike a restaurant, an airline has a greater responsibility to ensure that correct meals are served because of the remote nature of the meal. If one is ill on the ground, they can get to a hospital but from altitude, even the most serious situations might not be resolved in less than 30 minutes. That assumes an available airport (A380s have fewer options), quick agreement that the plane needs to land, expedited descent (not all airspace can accommodate this), and proper handling once on the ground.
How an airline enforces this with its myriad contract caterers is another matter, and what accountability does that food preparation company have to deliver safe meals? Are either company allowed a margin of error?
What do you think?