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Woman refused on American Airlines plane because of nut allergy makes plea for sufferers to be taken seriously


A woman who was removed from an American Airlines flight over her severe nut allergy has called for people at risk of anaphylaxis to be taken more seriously by airlines.

Sophie Draper, who has a “life-threatening” allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, said she had a flight booked from London to New York on 30 November 2021 with the airline, and informed staff of her situation at the gate as she had previously done with other carriers.

But Ms Draper claimed she was told by American Airlines staff they were “contractually obliged” to serve hot mixed nuts in first and business class, and that staff were not allowed to make an announcement asking other passengers not to eat nuts.

During her discussion with airline staff, Ms Draper claimed she and her partner were told she was making staff feel uncomfortable and airline workers instructed the crew to remove her bags from the flight.

“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” said Ms Draper, 26, who has suffered from the allergy since birth and flown several times.

“Normally staff treat it like it’s routine, because so many people have these allergies. But the staff at the gate looked concerned and confused, and said: ‘I don’t think we’re not going to serve nuts.’

“I was trying to explain it was a severe airborne allergy, she still didn’t seem to be completely getting it,” she told i.

“They finally agreed to take me down to the aircraft to speak to the cabin crew. [The crew member] was really not sympathetic and didn’t really understand the nut allergy entirely.

“He told me: ‘We are contractually obliged to serve these hot mixed nuts in first and business class’,” she claimed. This does not include peanuts, but Ms Draper was still concerned as she is also allergic to tree nuts.

American Airlines recommends people with allergies to take all necessary medical precautions before flying. Its website states: “We can’t accommodate requests to not serve certain foods or to provide nut ‘buffer zones’.” 

Ms Draper was travelling with her partner Pete to New York (Photo: Supplied)

An estimated two million people in the UK suffer with food allergies, with symptoms ranging from mild sensations inside the mouth, ears and throat, rashes and facial swelling to anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

Research from scientists at Imperial College London in 2021 found that between 1998 and 2018, hospitalisations for food-induced anaphylaxis rose by more than 5 per cent per year. While the proportion of people dying from anaphylaxis is declining, this is thought to be partly due to improved awareness of treatment.

Ms Draper claimed her carrying an EpiPen, which is used when someone goes into anaphylaxis shock, was used by the crew member as a reason she would be fine if she had an allergic reaction on the flight.

“He didn’t seem to understand how it works; it’s not a potion or a cure. If you’re going into anaphylaxis… it just buys you a bit more time to get to a medical facility where they can treat you. They didn’t seem to understand what the EpiPen was, which was concerning.”

Ms Draper said the American Airlines staff also said they could not speak to the passengers sat close to her or intervene if someone opened a pack of nuts next to her.

After she asked them what would happen if she went into anaphylaxis over the Atlantic, Ms Draper claimed the staff told her: “‘With you being so visibly uncomfortable, we are now uncomfortable, so we actually don’t feel comfortable with you flying with us today’.”

“They were already [calling] colleagues saying, ‘We need to get these bags off’,” she added.

Made to feel ‘like an idiot’

The researcher, who said she has nearly died from anaphylaxis in the past, said she was “shocked”.

“I was made to feel difficult and like an idiot. It almost gave me an imposter syndrome about my own allergy,” she said. “I was really upset. I had been made to feel like a difficult passenger about something I have no control over.”

Ms Draper said she often rings and emails ahead of flying to make this clear to airlines, but there was no option to do that on the booking site she went through and she couldn’t find the information as the flight was booked last minute. She said that she routinely spoke to airline staff at the gate and this had never before been a problem.

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Other members of the American Airlines crew then helped Ms Draper rebook on a British Airlines flight, where Ms Draper praised staff for taking the allergy “so seriously”.

They immediately halted the sale of nuts on the flight and made an announcement to the plane two or three times warning other passengers of Ms Draper’s allergy. Ms Draper said cabin crew also spoke personally to those sat around her about not consuming nuts.

She has since made a complaint to American Airlines, whose staff said they would call her within a month after investigating. More than six weeks later, Ms Draper said she has not heard back.

A spokesperson for American Airlines told i: “Protecting the health and safety of those who fly with us is our priority, and it’s essential to our purpose of caring for our customers as they travel.

“We regret that we disappointed Ms Draper and her travel partner during this trip, and our team has reached out to apologise and hear more about their experience.”

Nadim and Tanya Ednan-Laperouse received OBEs from Prince William for setting up the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation in memory of their 15-year-old daughter, who died after eating a baguette with sesame seeds to which she was allergic (Photo: Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP)

Last year, the parents of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died in 2016 from an allergic reaction on a plane aged 15 after eating a Pret a Manger banguette containing sesame seeds, welcomed a new law in her name requiring food retailers to display full ingredients and allergens on their products.

But despite the awareness created by Natasha’s case, Ms Draper said she still does not think severe food allergies such as hers are taken seriously, particularly in travel, and wanted to share her story in the hope of changing policy – and even saving a life.

“If I ate, for instance, half a peanut, I would probably be dead within 10 minutes. People don’t really understand what it is, they think it’s just me struggling to breathe. Your whole body goes into collapse, it’s a horrific experience,” she said.

“People don’t treat it seriously enough. Particularly with travel, they really should. I do think there needs to be more policy about it as these food allergies do seem to be creeping in more.”

She added: “I really do think a lot of these airlines aren’t going to change their policy until there’s a fatality.”

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