Thursday, December 14

Peanuts on Flights: Safety Issue or Fear Run Amok?

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering a ban on the serving of peanuts or peanut products during airline flights as part of a larger set of passenger protections. The ban would ostensibly help protect those with severe peanut allergies from suffering a reaction from the little packets customarily served on planes.

Although airlines are privately owned, flying is still a public form of transportation. When boarding a plane, passengers acknowledge that they’ll be sharing the same air as many other people for a set number of hours just as they would on a bus or train. It’s almost inevitable that someone on that aircraft will indulge in some behavior that affects other passengers. It’s impossible to control the actions of the dozens or hundreds of other travelers on public transportation. In fact, the only way to avoid other people’s trespasses on our personal space is to…well, avoid other people.

The ban affects what the airlines serve, but doesn’t address what other passengers may bring with them. Whether it’s a packet of proprietary peanuts from the airline itself or a homemade “PB&J,” a passenger who has a severe peanut allergy will react just as strongly. Unless the ban extends to carry-on items, forcing already burdened security personnel to check baggage and scan ingredient lists, it won’t remove all possibility of peanuts from an individual’s presence.

If a passenger’s allergies are so severe that even one peanut could cause death, then the ban offers scant protection; if those allergies are fairly mild, then serving peanuts is a nuisance rather than a matter of life and death. In either case, the ban does little.

Peanut allergies may a common food allergy, but it’s far from the only one. An estimated 150 to 200 people die annually from food allergies, many of which aren’t peanut-related. Shellfish, strawberries, and citrus fruit are also known allergens, yet airlines frequently serve shrimp and fruit cups as part of their in-flight meals. Some of these allergies can be every bit as life-threatening as a peanut allergy; like peanuts, shrimp and strawberries have characteristic scents that can be enough to trigger anaphylaxis. Eliminating peanuts protects the estimated 0.6 percent of the population that has peanut allergies, but does nothing to address every allergen to which any traveler may be exposed during a flight.

Protecting travelers from every possible danger, no matter how rare, is not the airlines’ or the DOT’s job. It’s incumbent on the person who has a severe allergy to protect himself from exposure. Ordering other travelers to forgo their paltry pack of airline peanuts isn’t a great burden especially when weighed against another person’s life, but at some point it becomes impossible to limit every possible danger to every possible traveler. Eventually we must take responsibility for our own safety.

Bad in-flight behavior is common. Virtually everyone who’s flown can recount at least one horror story–smelling another passenger’s sweaty feet or garish perfume, being trapped next to a white-knuckled flier who drinks until he’s ill, coping with an oblivious parent’s screeching toddlers–and most frequent fliers can describe several truly hair-raising ones. Trusting one’s life to the wisdom and courtesy of such fellow passengers doesn’t seem like a good idea, ban or no ban.

Sources: CNN.com, “Peanuts May Be Banned on Planes,” Elizabeth Landau

Food and Drug Administration, “Food Allergies: Reducing the Risks”

Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Peanut Allergy: An Overview,” Saleh Al-Muhsen, Ann E. Clarke, Rhoda S. Kagan
 

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