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About 3 million Americans have peanut allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/9/2010 12:43:48 PM ET 2010-09-09T16:43:48

The No. 1 suggestion from travelers on ways to enhance airline passenger protections? Ban peanuts on planes.

Of the nearly 1,300 public comments submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the majority are focused on peanut allergies. The agency is seeking public comment on issues affecting airline passengers — from peanuts on planes to involuntary bumping policies to surprise baggage fees — through Sept. 23.

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Technically, DOT doesn’t have the authority to change in-flight peanut policies. An appropriations law from 2000 prohibits the agency from passing peanut rules until a scientific study proves a rule change will benefit airline passengers with allergies. No such study has been completed or commissioned.

“We haven’t said we won’t do anything,” said DOT spokesperson Bill Mosely. “We haven’t ruled anything in or out. So we still do want to hear public comments about peanuts. We plan to read and review them all.” In June, DOT issued a notice saying it is simply gauging public opinion on ways to handle in-flight peanuts.

The problem with flying peanuts
Peanut allergies among children have tripled between 1997 and 2008, and peanut allergies, tree-nut allergies, or both, are reported by 1 percent of the U.S. population, or about 3 million people, according to the The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a group that supports discontinuing serving peanuts on planes.

The fear of having a severe reaction from exposure to peanuts while locked inside an airplane keeps some allergy sufferers grounded. Under DOT’s rules, passengers with severe peanut allergies have a qualifying disability covered by the Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign carriers against individuals with disabilities.

As far back as 1988, DOT advised airlines to make reasonable accommodations for passengers disabled by their peanut allergies. Most airlines voluntarily comply, but no formal rules have been put in place.

DOT is posing three alternatives to accommodate peanut-allergy sufferers on airplanes:

  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights;
  • Ban the serving of peanuts and all peanut products on all flights where a passenger with a peanut allergy requests it in advance, or;
  • Require airlines to establish a peanut-free buffer zone for passengers with severe peanut allergies.

DOT is also asking the public to comment on how peanuts and peanut products carried on board by passengers should be handled.

Peanut protections for airline passengers
Two domestic airlines continue to ladle out legumes. In 2009, both Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines served about 92 million bags of peanuts. “That does sound like a lot of nuts,” said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, “But the airline portion of the overall U.S. peanut business is really very small.”

“Many of our customers ask for peanuts. But if someone alerts us about a peanut allergy, we can create a peanut-free buffer zone for them of three rows in front of and three rows behind their seat,” said Delta spokesperson Susan Elliott. The airline’s website also notes that when advised that a passenger with peanut allergies is flying, “Gate agents will be notified in case you'd like to pre-board and cleanse the immediate seating area.”

AirTran, Alaska/Horizon, American, Continental, JetBlue and United are among the major domestic airlines that do not serve peanuts. However, most of these airlines also post notices saying they can’t promise that some items served on board won’t contain nut products or that other passengers won’t bring their own nut products on board.

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While Southwest can’t guarantee a nut-free airplane, it will suspend peanut service on an entire flight if a passenger with an allergy requests it.

Are these peanut-precautions enough? For now, voluntary compliance by airlines, and the cooperation of other passengers, is all there is.

But Chris Weiss, FAAN's vice president of advocacy and government relations, is encouraged DOT is seeking public feedback on the issue. “One would assume that after the deadline, all the comments will be read and categorized somehow. So maybe the DOT will rule on this issue someday after all.”

Want to share your comments on peanuts-on-planes or other passenger rights issues with the DOT? You can file comments on DOT-OST-2010-0140 here.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for USATODAY.com. You can follow her on Twitter .

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