Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Flying Peanuts

I was in Arizona this weekend with a couple of girlfriends. We had a blast – we let “spontaneity” be our theme word, so we let our whims guide us and had a great adventure, somehow cramming a little of everything into our trip.

Then, just to keep that “spontaneous” theme going, the airline decided to help by bumping us off our return flight. So instead of returning Sunday night as planned, we returned yesterday. It meant a few fast phone calls to sort out babysitting, lining up people to get our kids ready and off to school without us, and another phone call for a friend to come pick up my two companions at the airport so that I could drive directly to a Monday morning work meeting that I couldn’t miss.

But it all worked out surprisingly well, and we eventually made it home safe, sound, slightly sunburned, and recharged – and a day off-schedule, which explains why my blog is a day late this week. Oh well. Sometimes life just has its own agenda.

Anyway, the flights to and from Phoenix were short, but still long enough for the attendants to bring out beverages and snacks – your choice of crackers, cookies, or peanuts.

I continue to be surprised that airlines still serve peanuts. How can they do it, knowing that 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, knowing that peanuts cause the most fatal allergic reactions of any foods, and knowing that they are trapping people in a giant flying can far away from medical help?

Sure, people who fly a lot know that they can call the airlines ahead of time and ask for a peanut-free flight. But that doesn’t help eliminate all the ground-in peanut crumbs in the carpet, on the arm rests, on the trays, in the seats, on the lavatory door handles, and everywhere else. And what about people who don’t fly regularly and don’t know they can call and request a peanut-free flight?

Watching them hand out peanuts made me nervous, even though my son wasn’t on the flight with me. It’s funny how sensitized I am to nuts now.

About three weeks ago, a friend of mine flew across country for work. She’s allergic to a few tree nuts, but she doesn’t usually worry about flights because she’s not allergic to peanuts. But on this particular flight, her colleague, who was sitting next to her, ordered a food tray from the attendant. The food tray contained fruit, pecans, cheese and crackers. He ate the fruit and nuts, but offered my friend the cheese and crackers. Not realizing there had been cross-contamination, she had one.

Quickly, she felt her throat closing up, and knew she was reacting. She grabbed some Benadryl and some water, but it continued to get worse. A few minutes later, she found herself waking up in the back of the plane, a doctor’s face bent over her, with a blood pressure cuff on her arm. Luckily, there was a doctor who responded when the attendants had asked passengers “Is there a doctor on the plane?” There was also someone who had an EpiPen, who offered it to the doctor.

They didn’t have to use the EpiPens – the Benadryl began to work, and the doctor was monitoring her blood pressure to make sure she didn’t go anaphylactic.

It’s our worse nightmare – to have an allergic reaction when you’re that far from a hospital. In her case, she was incredibly lucky and just happened to be flying on a flight with both a doctor and another allergic passenger armed with EpiPens. (The fact that there WAS another allergic passenger on the plane with EpiPens shows how prevalent food allergies really are.)

But it made me wonder how often reactions on airplanes happen, and why the attendants who have to deal with it put up with nuts on their flights (the edible kind, not the psycho passenger kind). If I were a flight attendant, I’d speak up and ask that my employer discontinue nuts, just so I’d eliminate a few more chances for things to go wrong on my flights. You can’t eliminate all possibilities of problems, of course, but why not eliminate the obvious and easy ones? In business, that’s called “picking the low-hanging fruit” – taking the obvious steps to increase chances for success.

My friend’s experience may not have taught the airlines anything, but it did remind her that she can’t let her guard down, even for a single snack. And it reminded me that even adults forget to be vigilante, let alone kids, so I have to continue to remind my son to be aware of his environment, not to take anything for granted, and to be responsible for his own life, no matter where we are.

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