Nutty maneuverings, high-altitude headaches

September 09, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Here's an idea about nuts that sounds really nuts.

As if they didn't have enough to worry about, airlines now have to think about establishing peanut-free zones on their flights.

The Department of Transportation has offered to the major United States airlines a new set of guidelines to answer complaints from passengers with peanut allergies.

In the past, most airlines did not serve peanuts to people who did not want them, for whatever reason. That may no longer be good enough. According to the Wall Street Journal, the guidelines would require each airline crew to establish a peanut-free perimeter with a buffer row in front and back, meaning at least three rows would have to be peanut free.

The American Peanut Council and several peanut-state senators were outraged by this bureaucratic assault on their bread and, well, peanut butter.

It is not just big-government liberals who come up with rules like this. One booster of the rule is Mary Toman, first vice president of the Los Angeles County Republican Party and former deputy assistant secretary of commerce in the Bush administration.

She would like to expand the guidelines beyond peanuts. What about almonds? Cashews? Macadamias?

That's a serious question in her house. She has a 2-year-old daughter who is highly allergic to nuts that grow on trees, like cashews or walnuts, but not peanuts.

Her daughter is so allergic that nut residue on her fingers or pressed into her seat covers or picked up and recirculated in the airplane's ventilation system can make her ill in a life-threatening way, her mom says.

Yet, she says, only British Airways will provide her with a completely nut-free meal, meaning they don't even allow nut oils into their food preparation process.

With all due respect and sympathies to those who have peanut allergies, I seriously question whether this rule will do any good. For one thing, the government has turned up very little evidence that airborne peanut particles pose particularly perilous problems.

Even after a review of Mayo Clinic research on the behavior of minute peanut particles in airplane ventilation filters, the Department of Transportation concluded the problem was not serious enough to justify an outright ban, as with cigarettes.

Nor will airlines be required to search passengers for their peanuts or peanut butter sandwiches the way airport security searches for guns, knives or hand grenades.

Even the Food Allergy Network, based in Fairfax, Va., does not support bans but rather simply advises passengers to police their own children (What? Take personal responsibility? What pTC novel suggestion!) and fly early in the day, when airplanes and their vents are most likely to be free of nut dust and other irritants.

To justify its move, the Department of Transportation cited the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, which was passed to guarantee access to airlines for the disabled, after several nut-allergic passengers complained they were being discriminated against.

That's how the system works. Once it begins to respond to public needs, it sometimes doesn't know where to stop. Perhaps next we'll be facing such zones as:

* A Long-Leg Zone: For the professional basketball players and other tall people who have to squeeze their lengthy limbs into coach seat spaces that major airlines deliberately have been shrinking lately to make more room for their first-class passengers. Many who did not view their long legs as a disability before they sat down in coach soon will find it is one when they try to stand up again.

* A Big-People Zone: For those of us who live in fear and loathing of being seated in-between two sumo wrestlers in coach.

* A "Yap-Free" Zone: For those of us who have a paralyzing fear of being seated next to a talkative passenger who won't shut up. (I once had a yapping woman sitting next to me on a flight who had the audacity to joke, "You really weren't expecting to get any work done, were you? Ha, ha!" Ha, ha.)

* A Grouch-Free Zone: For yappers who like to yap because it helps them get over their fear of flying, which is another disability. They should have a place to yap at each other without receiving a cold shoulder from grouches like me.

* A Child-Free Zone: For those of us who don't want to fly with little whippersnappers who are not our own.

* A Cheap-Perfume-Free Zone. For those of us for whom a little scent goes a long way.

Happy flying.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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