Peanuts Still Fly in the Face of Airplane Snack Wars

Wow! I'm still reeling. But that's what happens when you get caught in the crossfire.

You see, a couple of weeks ago, I wrote what I thought was an innocuous post on my blog about Northwest Airlines' switching its free snacks – from pretzels to peanuts. I also pointed out that some people weren't real happy about that.

And the war was on!

I expected a few snide remarks about airlines possibly charging for snacks soon (even though US Airways recently backtracked on charging for water and sodas). Instead, the war of comments was related to the passengers and airlines responsibility for allergy sufferers.

On one side were those who were extremely concerned about children's peanut allergies, and those who, uh, weren't so concerned (sample comment: "Get your peanut-hating a**es out of the airport").

For more air travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at farecompare.com

What's an Airline to Do?

We'll get to that, but first, let me just say that I know peanut allergies are no joke -- they can be life-threatening for some kids (and you can read all about it on established medical Web sites, like the Mayo Clinic's).

This really hit home with me when I visited my daughter's school at lunchtime and was amazed to see a "peanut table," a special place set aside just for kids with nut allergies.

Now, just so you don't think all the comments on my peanut blog post were angry ones, there were thoughtful questions like this one: "Why all of a sudden are peanuts the 'death snack'?" Well, it's not all of a sudden. A reporter I know was investigating peanut allergies -- and children who died of such allergies -- a decade ago.

And the numbers of those affected have been steadily increasing. No one's sure why, but suggestions include better allergy reporting, changes in peanut processing methods or the fact that some children aren't exposed to as many allergy-producing substances as they used to be, and therefore don't develop certain immunities.

Frightening? Sure, severe food allergies can be very scary, especially if it's your child with the problem. But some perspective: According to a recent Time magazine article, 15 to 20 people die each year from a variety of food allergies, but more people die from beestings.

Know the 'Peanut Policy'

Some airlines, like JetBlue, don't serve peanuts and have no plans to; according to the carrier's Web site, however, "We cannot guarantee that our aircraft or snacks will be 100 percent free of peanuts." And this is because the manufacturers of nonpeanut snacks may use the same equipment to process peanut treats.

Southwest Airlines, which does serve peanuts, says it has "procedures in place to assist our customers with severe allergies … and will make every attempt not to serve packaged peanuts on the aircraft when our customers alert us to their allergy."

And what of Northwest, the airline that just switched to peanuts (to bring it in sync with merger partner, Delta)? The airline will create a three-row buffer zone for peanut-allergic customers.

Curious about your favorite airline's "peanut policy"? Check out the "customers with disabilities" section on their sites.

But the allergic should take note: No airline can guarantee a peanut-free environment for the simple reason that none will act as Peanut Police -– none will prevent passengers from bringing peanuts onboard. And so many do (confession time: I have to admit that one company's Hot & Sweet peanut snack mix is mighty tasty). And snack packs aren't the only products that can be loaded or laced with peanuts: You can find them in candy bars, muffins, cereals, egg rolls, even chili.

Face it. Banning peanuts on planes is simply impossible. We can't even get the bulk of the aircraft passengers to turn off their cell phones.

For allergy sufferers, information is power, and there's a lot out there. Just Google "peanut + allergy" and you'll find more than 700,000 entries, not to mention numerous worldwide news accounts of the phenomena (I just read one over the weekend from Iran's Tehran Times).

Deciding for Yourself

Ultimately, this is one of those situations where fliers will simply have to take responsibility: Can you or your loved one fly in a peanut environment? Only you and your doctor can answer that question.

But there's no reason to fight about this. A peanut allergy is hardly a moral issue, or even a political one.

Besides, as we all know, there's always something to worry about; one of my commenters noted that he was allergic to pretzels!

Allergy sufferers have my sympathy. But my focus remains on the huge challenges facing the airline industry and how they're meeting those challenges, for now anyway, with terrific new airfare sales -- that most of us who can would do well to take advantage of.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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