Dear Tripped Up,
Last year, I went to Africa with my medical school group. I have a life-threatening allergy to apples, and made Emirates aware of this on the phone, before my flight, and by filling out an online medical form. I was assured there would be no apples served in-flight.
When I arrived at the gate in Cape Town for my flight to Dubai (the first leg of my journey home to Chicago) I was told I couldn’t board. I was taken away from my group to a private room where I was interrogated and yelled at by Emirates employees. I was asked if my doctors had cleared me to fly: Yes, I have no flight restrictions. One apple on a plane is a survivable exposure; several hundred is not. Ultimately, I was forced to swallow the cost of a flight I was not allowed to board, plus pay thousands of dollars to get home on another airline. Everything about the situation was horrifying. Amanda
As a person without food allergies, I can’t even begin to imagine what that experience must have been like. But I’m glad you emailed, if for no other reason than to shed light on an issue that doesn’t always get its due.
I reached out to Emirates and made multiple efforts to get you restitution. Those efforts failed. In an emailed statement, the airline maintained their “records do not reflect any mention of an apple allergy. When alerted of the severe allergy on the day of the flight, our ground staff followed procedure and offloaded [the passenger] to avoid endangering her life.”
Emirates, a United Arab Emirates airline, issued nearly the exact statement to the The Sun, a British tabloid, in April 2018 when two passengers with nut allergies were told to sit in the bathroom by the cabin crew. In October, another passenger with nut allergies took to Twitter to complain about mistreatment on another Emirates flight.
When I pointed this out — and asked point-blank what the airline will do to improve its treatment of passengers with food allergies — the airline didn’t budge. When a spokeswoman repeatedly suggested that you should have filled out Emirates’s online medical form, I repeatedly told her that you had. I also wrote: “Is it your assertion that being taken into a private room and interrogated by Emirates staff — and then being publicly embarrassed in front of one’s travel companions — is the ‘followed procedure’ referenced in [your] statement?”
By declining to comment further, Emirates is bringing to light a key fact: There are no allergy- and disability-related laws that all airlines in the world must follow. Even the International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations, is not an enforcement agency for consumer complaints.
In the United States, the Transportation Department considers life-threatening food allergies a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in air transportation. But the A.C.A.A. is an American law that applies only to domestic airlines, as well as foreign-carrier flights that begin or end at an airport in the United States. (I reached out to FlightAware, a flight-tracking and status provider, to triple-confirm that the Emirates aircraft you weren’t allowed to board didn’t, in fact, continue onto a U.S. airport after its layover in Dubai. As it turns out: Lusaka, Zambia.)
Passengers traveling with carriers based in the United States, or with foreign carriers going to or from the United States, can file official disability-related complaints with the Transportation Department. And they should: Earlier this year, after reviewing a consumer complaint, the agency determined that passengers with food allergies must be allowed to pre-board — so they have time to wipe down seats and tray tables.
That’s incremental progress. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America is also advocating for planes to stock epinephrine auto-injectors, and for airlines to be required to track allergy-related medical emergencies.
In the meantime, because allergy policies vary so widely by airline, travelers have choices. Aer Lingus doesn’t serve peanuts (or derivatives), period. Delta won’t serve nuts if they are tipped off to a passenger with allergies. Some airlines, including JetBlue, will create buffer zones around passengers with food allergies. Emirates serves nuts on all its flights.
Also note that foreign carriers like Emirates are required to report to the Transportation Department the number of disability-related complaints they receive about flights to or from the United States. In 2017, Emirates received 197 complaints, one of nine foreign carriers — of the nearly 160 — with more than 150 complaints. Again: choices.
I made one last-ditch effort to get you closure. First I contacted StudentUniverse, the online travel agency where you originally purchased your plane tickets. The company parallel-tracked efforts with Emirates and came up short. But your experience inspired them to publish an online guide for traveling with allergies. Finally, I emailed the U.A.E. Department of Transport with the details of your complaint. I don’t have high hopes that anything will come from it, but I will keep you posted.
Sarah Firshein formerly held staff positions at Travel + Leisure and Vox Media, and has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Bloomberg, Eater and other publications. If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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