Air travel can be stressful (and scary) when severe food allergies are involved. Here's the life-saving info you need to know.

By Sally Kuzemchak
July 30, 2019
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toddle eating food on airplane
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Several years ago, Lianne Mandelbaum was waiting to board a flight with her son, who has a life-threatening peanut allergy, when she saw something that alarmed her. Another family in the boarding area was eating peanuts—and even though the family became aware of her son's allergy, their children began throwing the peanuts in the air and crushing them on the ground, laughing and pointing at Mandelbaum's son.

Worried, Mandelbaum asked an airline staff member if they could make an announcement that there was a child with a severe peanut allergy on board. The staff member refused. She was ultimately told, "If you think he's going to die, don't get on the plane."

That day, Mandelbaum became a passionate advocate for airline passengers with food allergies and now helps others through her site The No Nut Traveler. Here's some of her advice for flying safely:

Before You Book Your Flight

1. Check airline policies.They will vary. For instance, American Airlines doesn't accommodate requests to avoid serving certain foods or provide nut "buffer zones". But according to Delta's website, "When you notify us that you have a peanut or nut allergy, we'll refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products onboard your flight." Some airlines still serve peanuts as a snack. Southwest does not. Print out the airline's policy from their site to bring with you in case the crew isn't familiar with it.

2. Book an early flight. Mandelbaum says airplanes are typically cleaned thoroughly at the end of the day, so book the first flight of the day if possible.

3. Get a note from your pediatrician. Ask for a letter confirming your child's allergy diagnosis and the need to carry medication and food. Carry it with you when you travel.

On the Day You Travel

1. Pack medicine and food. Bring at least two epinephrine auto-injectors (in their original packaging labeled with the pharmacy name) and your own safe food in your carry-on bags. Avoid airline meals, even if they're supposed to be allergen-free. Human error is always a risk—and being 30,000 feet above ground isn't the time to find that out, Mandelbaum says. Pack double the food you'll need in case of long delays.

2. Tell the gate agent and the flight attendants about your child's allergy and the severity.Always be polite and respectful to the crew.

3. Pre-board. Mandelbaum says this is the most important thing you can do to lower the risk of exposure. When they announce boarding for "anyone needing extra time", get to your seats and clean the area (including tray table, arm rest, light switch, and window shades) with bleach-containing wipes such as Clorox. You can even cover the seat with a blanket or fitted sheet. Getting pushback from airline staff? The Department of Transportation now views severe allergies as a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows for special accommodations and protections, such as pre-boarding to clean seats (printing and packing a copy of the DOT's decision might be a good idea too!).

4. Steer clear of airline pillow and blankets. They may not be cleaned or changed between flights. Pack your own.

Keep in mind that although airlines might have certain policies in place (and even if you've had a good experience with a particular airline before), according to Mandelbaum, "Airlines are consistently inconsistent." There's no telling whether a certain crew will be educated about food allergies or sympathetic to your concerns. Following her advice above will help keep you safe and prepared.

For more about flying with food allergies, including first-hand accounts from travelers, visit The No Nut Traveler.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.