American Airlines Initiates New Pre-Board Policy

Travelling can at times be stressful more so to people who are allergic to any form of food stuff or any other thing. And Americans have raised some concerns regarding their nut allergies and have requested the option to early board to clear their seated area from nuts. American Airlines has listened and is now offering that option.

A Virginia mother in December 2017 filed a complaint of discrimination with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) after American Airlines refused to allow pre-boarding so she could wipe down the seating area for her son who has a severe food allergy.

Alicia White contends in the complaint that her family “was excluded from travel and remains excluded from travel” over her 8-year-old son’s medical pre-boarding needs.

In July 2017, White purchased tickets for an October trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. In late August, she contacted American Airlines about her son’s allergy and the need to pre-board. Once it was clear that the airline would not permit this on the flight from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, White says she had no choice but to buy new tickets on an alternate airline. That second airline allowed the pre-boarding for the family to have the time to wipe-down the area.

“I was completely shocked that pre-boarding was refused because I know that a life-threatening food allergy is considered a disability and believed we would be accommodated,” White told Allergic Living. “What we were asking for was simply extra time to board and ensure our son’s safety.”

Her complaint requests that the DOT “investigate and take immediate steps to require that American Airlines comply with its obligation to permit pre-boarding for individuals with disabilities, and to cease its discriminatory policies and practices against individuals with food allergies.” She also seeks to be reimbursed for the $631 she paid for the Orlando tickets.

American Airlines has a written “nut allergy” policy on its website that specifically denies pre-boarding to those with nut or peanut allergies. In early 2017, Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the largest food allergy not-for-profit organization, took a stand in favor of pre-boarding for its community. It filed a complaint with DOT, calling American Airlines’ policy to refuse pre-boarding to those with food allergies both discriminatory and a violation of the Air Carrier Access Act.

American Airlines has responded to FARE’s complaint by admitting that it does not offer pre-boarding to those with food allergies for wiping down seats and tray tables, and “denies the implication that it is required by law to do so.”

The Access Act says that passengers with disabilities must be allowed to pre-board if they request additional time to board or be seated. FARE has contended this includes food-allergic individuals since “a disability is defined as a substantial impairment to a major life activity (such as breathing or eating).”

When asked about White’s specific complaint, the airline’s representative told Allergic Living that “allowing passengers with a nut allergy to pre-board can create a false sense of security and doesn’t eliminate risk. We strongly encourage customers to take all necessary precautions and speak to a medical professional before they travel …. Our policy is designed to ensure our customers don’t think we can provide something we can’t – a nut-free environment onboard our planes.”

Of her family’s Orlando trip, White says she tried several times to get a refund, but American Airlines’ customer representatives refused that, and only offered to issue vouchers. When White said her family could not use the vouchers, as her son could not travel safely without pre-boarding to fully wipe the seating area to ensure it was free of peanut, his severe allergen, the woman was told she could donate the vouchers to charity.

White’s complaint was filed by Stein & Vargas, a law firm that specializes in disability rights. The complaint notes the Access Act “provides that no carrier may discriminate against any otherwise qualified individual with a disability, by reason of such disability, in the provision of air transportation.”

The mother says she chose to pursue the DOT complaint because “there are millions of Americans with life-threatening allergies who are affected by AA’s unfair and discriminatory policy. I believe I have the responsibility of advocating for my son and ensuring he is not excluded from air travel.”

As of Wednesday, American Airlines will allow passengers with nut allergies to request pre-boarding from gate agents in order to wipe down their seats and tray tables. The enhanced policy, which has been circulated via internal memo only, states that American Airlines will continue to serve nuts to other passengers on board, and will not ask other travelers to avoid eating their own nut snacks on board.

The policy change follows closely on the heels of updates implemented by competing carriers, including United, Singapore and Southwest, as a result of increasing public awareness surrounding the dangers of nut allergies.

The new mandate will go into effect on December 12, when all flight-service manuals must be updated, giving any allergy-prone travelers ample time to wipe down their own seating areas before the remainder of the plane’s passengers shove their way in. Apparently, the airline has faced a number of complaints in the past year from Food Allergy Research & Education. enough. 

“Customers with nut allergies who would like to board flights early to wipe down surfaces may ask to do so at the gate,” American Airlines said, per the report. There are about 15 million Americans who suffer from serious food allergies, according to the food-allergy research group, so some standard anti-allergen practices are not exactly a bad idea.