Tag Archives: discrimination

Nuts on airplanes: what’s the big deal?

As our flight back to the UK prepared for take off on Tuesday, I was reassured by the now-familiar (to me) announcement that as there was a passenger on board with a severe nut allergy they would not be serving food containing nuts during the flight, and would appreciate it if other passengers refrained from opening any nut products they might have brought on board.

It’s the best I can possibly hope for when I have to fly, but I’m pretty sure most of my fellow passengers would have had no idea how important it was for me to hear those words. I can always sense a wave of incredulity pass over the cabin – sometimes people are vocal about it, calling the whole affair nonsense, but even when they stay silent I’m not convinced they really understand.

And why would they? If you (or someone you love) do not suffer from a severe food allergy then there is no reason for you to see why the prospect of being exposed to the allergen is quite so scary, or why that risk is amplified quite so much when flying. Making an announcement that impinges on the freedoms of other passengers might seem over the top, just health and safety gone mad. And that is why I have written this post.

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For me, there is nothing much more terrifying than the prospect of being trapped in a sealed metal box 40,000 feet in the air surrounded by several hundred people simultaneously opening packets of nuts. Because, like hundreds of thousands of other people in the UK, nuts are my Kryptonite: contact with just the smallest amount would put me at risk of becoming seriously ill or even dying as a result of anaphylactic shock.

Fortunately in the UK and Europe it is rare now for an airline to hand out free nuts to everyone on board. But nuts are still sold on most flights, and nuts are an increasingly popular snack option for health-conscious people to bring along themselves, so I don’t feel I can relax entirely.

Anaphylactic reactions to airborne nut particles are rare, but certainly not unheard of. There was a high profile case last summer where a four year old girl collapsed when a nearby passenger began eating a bag of nuts on their flight, and I have heard several similar anecdotes from people with nut allergies.

For my part, I have been in situations where I have been surrounded by nuts in a confined space and have begun to feel the tell-tale signs of the onset of a serious reaction: several times at bars or parties where bowls of peanuts sat on every table, and once on a ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar where the snack of choice for seemingly everyone on board was roasted cashews. On each of these occasions I have had a choice – to stand on the deck of the ferry, or to go to another bar – but if the tingling mouth and tightening throat began to set in on an aircraft there really wouldn’t be anywhere I could go.

So for me flying is about minimising risk. I try to only travel with airlines who will make the concessions that EasyJet did when we flew from the UK to Crete. For EasyJet, it is part of their policy, as it is for Flybe, WestJet and Icelandair, all people I have enjoyed flying with over the past couple of years. With many other airlines you are at the whim of the cabin crew as to whether they are prepared to take steps to make the flight safe. And with some, such as British Airways, their policy is the complete opposite: they categorically refuse to inform other passengers that there is someone with a severe allergy on board.

I had a particularly difficult experience four years ago, returning from honeymoon in Vietnam. We were travelling with Qatar Airways, and prior to our trip had gone through all the proper channels to ensure that I would not find myself in the nightmare situation I described above. Our outbound flight was perfect – a polite announcement was made, alternative snacks were served, and I filled in a glowing feedback form before leaving the plane. But in the two weeks we were away they changed their policy. On arriving at the airport in Ho Chi Minh we were told that it was now the decision of the crew whether or not to make concessions for my allergy, and that before I was allowed to board I would have to sign a disclaimer absolving them of any responsibility if I were to get ill or die on the flight. We didn’t have much choice at this point, so I figured I’d just have to hope the crew were understanding. As we boarded the plane I had the conversation, and they reassured me that they would not be serving nuts as snacks and would make the announcement to fellow passengers. Something was niggling at me, though, as we went to take our seats, and I asked what meal they were going to serve. Turns out it was Chicken Satay – so I would have to deal with the fragrance of warm, minced peanuts wafting through the cabin as everyone took the lid off their meal tray.

Needless to say we didn’t get that flight. There was of course no way they could have changed the meal at such late notice – though I had informed the airline of my allergy months before. So we booked into a hotel for another night, and tried to figure out some other way to get home. It was Eid, making getting hold of anyone at the Qatar head office almost impossible, but we eventually got reassurance that they would be able to fly us home the next day under the initial conditions we had agreed. Except when we were at the gate, just after the head of the cabin crew had sought me out and reassured me that he would be doing everything to make the flight safe, the pilot came over and told me that he wasn’t prepared to take the risk of transporting someone with a nut allergy and I was not allowed to board the plane.

We got home eventually, two days late for my new job, with another airline and at great expense. In the weeks that followed I tried to pursue compensation from Qatar, but they were unflinching in their conviction that they had done nothing wrong. I even looked into legal action, but was advised that any lawsuit would be very costly and due to the might of the airline’s legal team had little chance of success.

I was left feeling like I had been mistreated and ill-informed, and ultimately discriminated against because of my allergy. Recent rulings have decided that nut allergy can in fact be considered a disability, and thus discrimination against those who suffer from allergies should be treated as seriously as you would any disability discrimination. Yet a surprising number of airlines (and passengers) seem to feel that it is those who are asked if they could temporarily refrain from eating nuts that are being discriminated against – an attitude that the many similar stories from those with nut allergies attest to.

I don’t really understand why an airline would knowingly want to take the risk of someone going into anaphylactic shock on board one of their planes, or why they would want to make life more difficult for someone with a long-standing medical condition. In the States, where many airlines do still hand out free nuts to everyone on board, it is hard not to link the brick wall faced by passengers with allergies to the powerful lobbying groups attached to the multi-million dollar peanut industry.

I could never consider flying with an airline which still has nuts as an intrinsic part of its meal service. But even on airlines where my nightmare is less likely I have to be careful – after all, there is nothing to stop all of the passengers surrounding me deciding that they want to snack on nuts if there is nothing to indicate to them that this might be a bad idea. It is this situation that makes EasyJet’s approach so invaluable to me – I know they cannot guarantee me a completely nut-free flight, but I really appreciate the fact that they try their best to keep me safe.

I suppose ultimately for someone with a severe nut allergy, I really do have some cheek. Not only do I like to eat out from time to time, but I like to be able to travel to places that can only easily be reached by air. There are those who would say that, given my health condition, I should just avoid these experiences, but I beg to differ.

What do you reckon? Am I being unreasonable? Or do commercial airlines and their passengers have a responsibility to create an environment for travel that is safe for those with allergies? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Why we cannot afford to get complacent about our right to breastfeed our babies

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A storm erupted on social media yesterday which reminded me that we still have a long way to go before society fully accepts that it is perfectly normal and natural for babies to be fed from a woman’s breasts.

As I’m writing this, my toddler is nursing in the sling. It’s easy to get complacent in my own little corner of the universe – to forget that there are still many people who would look on what I’m doing as disgusting. Sure there are reminders now and again. The woman called a ‘slut’ by an elderly couple for breastfeeding her child in a coffee shop in London. The nursing mother subjected to abuse by teenagers on a local bus route. But it’s relatively easy to dismiss these as little pockets of ignorance – important to stand up against, yes, but situations that arose in the heat of the moment.

And then yesterday it emerged that a popular ‘family friendly’ cafe in leafy Surrey had decided it was appropriate to display this sign on their front door:

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I, like many others, was gobsmacked. I mean – what were they thinking? A woman’s right to breastfeed her child – and indeed that child’s right to be nourished and nurtured – is entrenched in law. It is illegal in this country to tell a woman she cannot breastfeed her child, or indeed to discriminate against her in any way for that reason.

But here is an established business telling its clientele, openly and publicly, that they have the right to tell breastfeeding mothers to feed in the toilet.

This is wrong on so many levels. There is the fundamental idiocy of suggesting that it is in any way appropriate for a baby to eat in the place where people defecate. I have yet to find anyone who has expressed this as well as the poet Hollie McNish, so I’m just going to leave this here:

There is the thinly veiled implication that well-behaved dogs are more welcome than breastfeeding mothers and their babies, the mind-bending logistics of a group of mums taking it in turns to leave their friends and their coffee and cake at the table and take their baby and the thoughtfully provided chair into the disabled toilet. Or perhaps the whole group is expected to relocate, coffee and cake and all.

All of this aside though, there is a psychology at play here which is insidious and dangerous, and that is where for me the biggest problem lies.

I’m not too worried about me. I hope I’d have the guts to tell the cafe where to stick their sign. I know my rights, and I’m confident enough in the many benefits to me and my child of continuing our breastfeeding relationship that I wouldn’t be put off by such an impolite notice.

But what of those who are less confident? What of the mum in the early stages of breastfeeding her child who is self-conscious and embarrassed? What if she decides that this precious social time with her friends is so important that maybe she’ll just take a bottle to feed her baby when she goes out? What of her dwindling supply, her feelings of failure and resignation to not being able to follow through on her desire to breastfeed? What of her child, missing out on the many benefits that nursing can bring?

Not forgetting the rest of the cafe’s clientele. Like with many forms of discrimination, there are the people whose discomfort at being in the company of a breastfeeding mother simmers just below the surface. Seeing an official sign like this normalises their attitude, perhaps increasing their confidence in expressing their inappropriate views in another situation.

The cafe has claimed that there was a misunderstanding. Using the oldest excuse for bigotry in the book, the cafe owner has claimed that having breastfed her own children how could she possibly be discriminating against breastfeeding mothers. But there is nothing I can find in that sign that is ambiguous: she claims she has the right to ask breastfeeding mothers to feed in the toilet. And that is unequivocally wrong.

The cafe’s ratings on various online sites have plummeted after people expressed their disgust at their gall. The prospect of a nurse-in protest was clearly not one the owner wanted to face, and I understand the sign has now been taken down.

This is ultimately a good thing. But it took five weeks for this story to be picked up by social media – that’s a long time for something so damaging to be in the public sphere.

So whilst this particular tale of discrimination might have something approaching a happy ending, it is clear to me that this is not a time for us to be complacent. Not at all.