American Airlines is in the crosshairs of food allergy issues, but not for offering peanuts to passengers. And the Department of Transportation has been called to take action. Why?
Today, airlines allow expecting mothers, the elderly, and persons with disabilities to pre-board flights to ensure safe and secure boarding. The Air Carriers Access Act requires those special services be available to passengers. But many might not know that travelers with food allergies are also legally protected to pre-board under the Air Carrier Access Act. The law protects those passengers with a disability who need additional time or assistance to board, which in the case of individuals with food allergies, includes wiping down seating areas to minimize exposure to food allergens.
In a recent effort to safeguard the rights of these individuals, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) against American Airlines for “misleading passengers about their legal rights and denying them legal protections.” The complaint states that by enforcing and maintaining a discriminatory policy, American Airlines is denying those with food allergies their federally protected rights.
The discriminatory policy FARE is referring to is American Airlines’ written policies that prohibit people with food allergies from pre-boarding, a direct violation of the Air Carrier Access Act, which defines a disability as a substantial impairment to a major life activity, such as breathing or eating. Additionally, allergies are generally considered to be disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
So what does this mean for other industries? Currently, the ADA does not require that every place of public accommodation that serves food provide gluten-free or allergen-free food. While some restaurants have taken steps to accommodate individuals with food allergies, it largely falls on the wait staff to provide guidance on which foods contain allergens. This becomes an issue because the wait staff might not know if there are allergens in their dishes. And even if there aren’t, it doesn’t mean that certain foods can’t be contaminated with an allergen, such as gluten.
With constantly evolving research on food allergies and an increased focus on ensuring customers minimize exposure to food allergens, businesses, including airlines, should adhere to strict standards to protect those individuals. While these standards vary depending on the business and the industry, one would assume that an airline that is required by law to protect those customers would abide by the guidelines established.
American Airlines has not yet responded to the complaint, and DOT has not made public comment on the recent filing, but as food allergens continue to impact consumers, and travelers, across the country it will be interesting to watch how, and when, the airline addresses these claims, and whether the move by FARE will result in stricter guidelines in American’s written policies.