The hard facts about the peanuts-on-a-plane rule everyone’s talking about

By | June 16th, 2010

Editor’s note: This is part twelve in a series about the Transportation Department’s sweeping new airline passenger protection rules. You can read the entire document here (.DOC). Please take a moment to comment on these proposed rules at The future of air travel depends on it.

Ban peanuts? Really?

That’s the first reaction I get when I mention the final, and perhaps the most ridiculed, of the Transportation Department’s proposed new rules. Seriously — why would the government do away with peanuts on a plane?

The regulatory analysis (PDF) I’ve referred to throughout this series of posts doesn’t even address this contentious issue.

But the facts are these: Every time I write about peanut allergies, or any kind of allergies in connection with air travel, I get a flood of emails from allergy sufferers who implore the airlines to create allergen-free flights. (No pets, no peanuts, no shellfish at a minimum.)

I don’t suffer from allergies, and neither does any member of my family. So while it’s easy for me to dismiss these requests as frivolous, it’s true that I’ll never know what it’s like to live with a life-threatening allergy.

The government feels it’s time to take these requests seriously. Under 14 CFR Part 382, airlines are prohibited from discrimination against passengers with disabilities. And an allergy can be a disability.

If a person’s allergy is sufficiently severe to substantially limit a major life activity, then that person meets the definition of an individual with a disability. Part 382 states that major life activities means functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working. Airline passengers with severe allergies to peanuts have a qualifying disability as defined in Part 382.

The government is considering several rules to remedy the problem.

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1) Banning the serving of peanuts and all peanut products by both U.S. and foreign carriers on flights covered by DOT’s disability rule.

2) Banning the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all such flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy is on board and has requested a peanut-free flight in advance.

3) Requiring a peanut-free buffer zone in the immediate area of a passenger with a medically-documented severe allergy to peanuts if passenger has requested a peanut-free flight in advance.

Interestingly, the government has tried going the peanut-free-zone route in the past, but was stopped by Congress.

[The] Department was directed by Congress to cease issuing guidance on this subject or face a cutoff of funding for its Aviation Enforcement Office. See, for example, section 346 of Public Law 106-69, (October 9, 1999)–“DOT and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2000,” which stated that none of the funds made available under that Act could be used to require or suggest that airlines provide peanut-free buffer zones or otherwise restrict the distribution of peanuts.

The prohibition hasn’t appeared in any recent legislation, so the DOT thinks it has a green light to renew its peanut prohibitions.

But how far do you take the ban? Would passengers be prohibited from taking their own nuts on board? How about crackers with peanut butter or something deep-fried in peanut oil? How would you enforce such a ban?

I really don’t know about this one. I love peanuts. I don’t mind giving them up for a flight, but are flight attendants really going to confiscate my daughter’s peanut butter cookie before boarding? Are they going to ask if those french fries I bought at the food court were fried in peanut oil — and then toss them in the garbage if they were?

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It’s one thing to tell Southwest Airlines to stop serving peanuts. But creating allergen-free flights will be difficult, if not impossible. It might make more sense to stock each flight with a handful of epinephrine auto-injectors.

What do you think?

The Rulemaking Series

I’ve written this series of posts in order to help you understand the Transportation Department’s proposed rules and offer the most informed feedback during its commenting period. Please take a moment to read them and then tell the government what you think at

Part 1: New tarmac delay contingency plans — what’s in it for you?

Part 2: Government will require airlines to offer “complete picture” of ground delays

Part 3: New rules would require airlines to meet “minimum” customer service standards

Part 4: Government to airlines: Put it in the contract!

Part 5: New requirements would force international airlines to monitor and respond to passenger complaints

Part 6: Everything you need to know about the new denied boarding compensation rules

Part 7: The truth about the government’s new “full fare” disclosure rule

Part 8: Transportation Department wants airlines to reveal all fees and an airfare — or two

Part 9: New rule: No more price increases after you buy a ticket

Part 10: Airlines must “promptly” notify passengers of flight delays under proposed rule

Part 11: No more lawsuit limits for passengers under proposed government rules

Part 12: The hard facts about the peanuts-on-a-plane rule everyone’s talking about

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If you have any feedback on this series, please send me an email. And thanks for reading.

(Photo: Euro Magic/Flickr Creative Commons)

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