Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Update nuts on plains

Anaphylaxis & Food Allergy Association of Minnesota

Peanuts on Airplanes
AFAA Negotiates with Northwest/Delta Airlines

Meeting With the Airlines

An AFAA delegation met with Northwest/Delta Airlines in March to begin negotiations on reducing risks to food allergic passengers. The delegation consisted of AFAA's Medical Advisor, Dr. Allan Stillerman; AFAA's Founder & Executive Director, Nona Narvaez; former Star Tribune travel editor, Catherine Watson (who has a severe peanut allergy); and Minnesota Senator Jim Carlson, (vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee).

Also attending the meeting was Alan Peterson (senior aide to Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar), who arranged the meeting between AFAA and the airlines.

Dr. Stillerman gave a medical presentation on anaphylaxis, while Ms. Watson described the terror of having a reaction mid-flight. Ms. Narvaez presented hundreds of letters and e-mails from food allergic families, and preliminary results from the Peanuts on Airplanes survey.

Northwest (NWA)/Delta representative, Vice President Tammy Stanoch, was receptive to the information and immediately took AFAA's policy recommendations under consideration.

Changing Places
Shortly after the meeting, Ms. Stanoch was laid off from her position from NWA/Delta.

In addition, an announcment was made that Ms. Peterson - Representative Oberstar's aide - was beginning a new position with Minnesota's new senator, Al Franken.

The employment changes by these two allies complicates further negotiations between AFAA and the airline.

Airline Response
Northwest/Delta Airlines took a few weeks to evaluate the policy recommendations before responding to AFAA in April. The response was disappointing to the AFAA delegation: while response in the initial meeting was positive, in the end the airline conceded extremely and did not acknowledge inconsistent implementation of existing policies (e.g. preboarding certain passengers).

What's Next?
With the primary contacts (Ms. Stanoch and Ms. Peterson) now displaced, and the uncompromising response from the airline despite significant media coverage and a deluge of communication from the food allergic community, AFAA has had to evaluate remaining options. What is the best means to influence change in the airline's policy? No clear plan of action is immediately obvious.

AFAA has been consulting with state and federal policy makers, analysts, and advocates, and in the meantime has been encouraging non-allergic passengers to voice their preference for the previous NWA peanut-snack free policy.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," explained AFAA Executive Director, Nona Narvaez. "The more people who voice their opinion, the more likely the airline will listen."

The AFAA Board of Directors has taken a number of proposals under consideration, and is in the process of deciding which steps to take next.

Difficult Road Ahead
Ms. Narvaez went on to explain the difficulties in dealing with a large business. "A huge corporation isn't as responsive to the public as a small company would be or as public policyholders are. They are not used to answering to the public, and are not easily influenced unless something seriously cuts into their revenue."

Ms. Narvaez notes that a number of letter/e-mail writers - including frequent fliers - indicated that they cancelled their airline credit cards because of the switch to peanut snacks on the flights, and some cancelled flights after the policy change.

"If a significant number of people cancel flights and credit cards - and express to the airline why they are doing so - and do so publicly - it might make a difference."

Ms. Narvaez, who worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Congress and for the Minnesota Legislature, cautions that "this issue is not going to have a quick fix, unfortunately. Clearly it will not be easy to get concessions."

"AFAA has to continue working on this issue with policymakers, regulators, and the food allergy community, and it may take many months until a resolution is reached. As with many advocacy issues, stamina will be necessary."

1 comment:

Susan said...

I have a 4 year old with a peanut and tree nut allergy.

We're going to Hawaii in December for a family reunion, and I really wanted to make the long trip in First Class. But because First Class = warm nuts, there's a much higher risk in my opinion if we sit there than if we sit in Coach. So American Airlines is getting a lot less money out of me as a result.

We fly quite a bit and on the two occasions when snacks were distributed in Coach Class, I politely mentioned we didn't want them because my daughter has a life-threatening allergy to nuts. And on both occasions the flight attendant quickly dismissed my comments stating quite loudly that the snacks do not have nuts in them. So both times I had to point out the allergen warning label on the package and tell them that this means she cannot have them so please keep them or give them to someone else.

They were pushy and obnoxious about it. I was totally floored. I couldn't understand why they were talking to me like that when I politely stated we didn't want any because of the allergy. We were talking about a possible life-threatening reaction in the middle of a flight and they acted like I was over-reacting by passing on the snack.

So after both flights, I emailed American Airlines' customer service and told them the names of the flight attendants and my side of the story. I asked them to please educate their employees about the seriousness of food allergies and that these snacks are not safe. If they didn't want to do this, then they needed to at minimum re-train these people with a customer service 101 class. I never received a response either time from AA.

Since I live in Dallas, there aren't many nonstop options out of DFW Airport to the places we travel most. Otherwise I'd definitely fly another airline if I thought they'd be more sensitive to the issue. Not sure though that any of the airlines are there yet.