Nut allergies are real and U.S. law also takes them seriously when it comes to commercial flying. Sadly, a frequent traveler shares of a less-than-acceptable experience on a United Express flight followed by a poor follow-up from United Airlines. Her story provides an instructive lesson.
A Nutty Response To An Unnecessary Nut Allergy Incident On United Airlines
Let’s first recount what happened to the passenger, who has filed a U.S. Department of Transportation complaint under Jane Doe to protect her privacy.
- The flight incident occurred on June 19, 2022 on United Airlines flight 4325 from Huntsville (HSV) to Washington (IAD), operated by CommuteAir
- CommuteAir operates regional flights for United Airlines under the United Express brand
- Per the policy of United, Doe alerted the flight attendant of her nut allergy after boarding
- United’s website says, “If you have a severe food allergy and are traveling on flights between the U.S. and Canada, please notify a flight attendant on board the aircraft to request an allergy buffer zone so we can notify customers seated nearby to refrain from eating any allergen-containing products they may have brought on board.”
- The flight attendant became hostile, raising her voice and stating, “Are you sure you can fly? Do you want to die in the sky?”
- Doe assured the flight attendant she could fly, but the flight attendant said she did not want to have to “epi” Doe and then disappeared
- Moments later, a gate agent showed up and told Doe that she could not travel on the flight
- The gate agent did this by loudly asking, “Are you the woman with the peanut allergy?,” then stating, “You need to leave the plane. You didn’t declare the nut allergy on your travel reservation, you can’t fly with United.”
- After Doe stepped off the aircraft, the pilot stepped off and said that because almonds were being sold onboard, she did not feel it was safe for her to fly
- With no other flights that night to Washington, DC and a commitment the following day, Doe was advised to book with another airline
- She ended up driving, incurring travel-related expenses totaling $1,427.31, including $1,053.08 for a one-way car rental
- Upon her return to Washington, she began a conversation with United Airlines customer service over the incident
- Her flight cost ($730.20) was refunded
- Doe also requested that her one-way car rental and associated expenses be compensated
- United initially offered her a $300 travel voucher or $200 in cash
- After pushing back, United upped the offer to $300 in cash
- Later, United Airlines said, “After some discussion with the Captain, it was determined the safest thing would be to ask you to deplane and be re-booked for a less full flight.”
- Of course, most flights are full these days and there were no later flights…
I see two problems here. First, the poorly-trained flight crew improperly handled the situation. United’s policy is clear: those passengers with nut allergies are not unfit to fly:
Second, United Airlines had a chance to make this right after the fact and failed in refusing to compensate Doe for her reasonable expenses incurred as a direct result of United’s improper denial of boarding.
Doe did not make any unreasonable demands: she simply alerted the flight attendant of her tree nut allergy. The Air Carrier Access Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of this allergy and if her allegations are true, United simply failed here.
Doe is being represented by Mary Vargas, a prominent disability rights attorney. Her aim is not a payday from United, but simply compensation for her expenses and a change in DOT policy that clarifies rights for passengers with severe allergies.
I spoke to Lianne Mandelbaum, Founder of No Nut Traveler, Inc., who expressed dismay about the incident:
“I am truly shocked by the blatant discriminatory behavior displayed by United towards this business traveler with a tree nut allergy. It is utterly unacceptable as food allergy is a recognized disability under the ACAA. No child or adult with a food allergy should ever be humiliated or thrown off a flight due to this legitimate medical condition.
“I am grateful that disability rights attorney Mary Vargas is representing this traveler because this complaint is about far more than reimbursement. It is my hope that DOT will lay down basic guidelines and require training so that other travelers with a food allergy are protected from such behavior in the future.”
I have seen serious food allergies wreak havoc on others and wish such an affliction on no one. Part of honoring the dignity of every human being is making reasonable accommodations to mitigate harm. I do not think Doe is asking anything unreasonable…this should be an easy case for United’s “Good Leads The Way” campaign.
Live and Let’s Fly reached out to United earlier this week concerning this incident and did not receive a reply.
A United flyer claims she was thrown off a flight for simply verbalizing her tree nut allergy and United has failed to compensate her reasonable expenses incurred as a result of her denied boarding event. I am hopeful United will take corrective action now that this issue has been raised to the DOT and more importantly, that United will train its regional pilots, flight attendants, and ground staff to act with more common sense and compassion when encountering a passenger with a tree nut allergy.
image: Adam Moreira