Flying with PA: Customer service hell

My father owned his own contracting business in Detroit and insisted all his kids go to college and get a ‘white-collar’ job. I ended up with an engineering degree and went to Silicon Valley in the high tech field. Worked for a large multi-national company, but didn’t realize at the time in order for my career to progress required business travel. Some times more than others, both domestic and international.  YIKES!! What did I get myself into?

When I started flying the attendants pushed peanuts out with every drink.  Slowly there was conversion to non-peanut snacks. It was a nuisance, but not horrible, and my initial travels were domestic flights.

Back then the climate control systems brought in more fresh air from the outside so I would blow the air vent on my face wide open to avoid ‘smelling’ the peanuts.  On today’s more modern aircraft they are more energy efficient and bring in less outside air and recirculate more. The modern aircraft have HEPA filters, and if they are working properly should remove the airborne allergens, but even so not 100% of the air is filtered every time it passes through.

In the early ’90’s I was flying to Dallas on American Airlines and one of the two menu choices was a chinese style something with peanut sauce. Everyone was served and uncovered their food and I went into what I would describe as a very serious hay fever type reaction, sneezing, watery & swollen eyes but much worse than my typical seasonal allergies. I had never been through this before. I had the ana-kit out and I hit the call button for the flight attendant. I told her what was going on and she immediately cleared the used plates away around me as quickly as possible. I didn’t use the epi. Fortunately the portions were small and eaten quickly and the fresh air was blowing on my face. The reaction went away almost as quickly as it came on, but from that time on I always called the airline in advance to confirm the menu to make sure no peanuts in the meal.

Apparently that dish was not very popular and so I never encountered it again. At some point United declared themselves peanut free and American came close to making the same policy, so these have been my 2 new preferred airlines ever since, and both have hubs at the major airport nearest me. I’d flew others, provided they were safe by the criteria posted previously.

False sense of security

I became complacent since I only flew ‘safe’ airlines. In 2008 I booked a vacation to Israel with a tour group and the airline ticket was included. I failed to check at the time which airline it was. After the ticket was booked I read their peanut policy and immediately tried to get out of flying with them. I called and explained my situation and asked for a refund so I could fly a different airline.  They refused, and told me I would be fine. I was foolish and meek. I hadn’t had a reaction in years and my flying had been completely uneventful, so I let myself be talked into it.  I thought they would be handing out those little bags of peanuts, and I was able to deal with those years before, and they ‘generously’ were providing a buffer zone around me. But that’s it, and no announcement either, but I thought nothing of it. We were flying about 5 hours cross country then going trans-Atlantic,

It was a very large, wide body aircraft and I was about 8 or 10 rows behind the end of the first class cabin. The main cabin was divided in half front to back with over wing exits and a curtain between. We were in the air and I was expecting them to offer ‘pretzels or peanuts’ in little packages. But oh no, the cart coming down the aisle was loaded to the gills with every imaginable peanut based snack for sale. Cookies, candy bars, big bags of peanuts and my anxiety went through the roof. I started sensing a sinus reaction and we were 30 minutes into a 5 hour flight. I just kept telling myself no one ever died from airborne in an airplane. But the little voice inside my head kept telling me ‘and I don’t want to be the first.’

Then it occurred to me… it’s not just about me, I’m not the only one affected by this. I thought of my wife, my kids, my family and friends. Did I want to prove myself a going down in the history books as the first person to die on an airplane from airborne exposure, or did I want to LIVE?

The cart was coming closer and closer. people were tearing open their snacks and I could start to sense the airborne peanut dust. Finally, The cart was at the buffer zone, it was in my ‘safety zone’. At least they would stop serving the peanuts, then the cart would go by and I could go talk to the head flight attendant, or so I thought…. BUT,… they kept serving the peanut snacks, they weren’t honoring the buffer zone that they promised me.  I waited until the nice lady came by and when I declined to purchase a peanut snack she smiled and slipped little free bag of peanuts into my hand. That was all I needed. I stood up and said

“Excuse ME” …

How I got to the front of the aircraft is not clear. But I knew I could not appear to be hysterical, they would dismiss me as having anxiety, and I would go down in history, but not in the way I wanted.  I was up front talking to the head attendant, I was calm on the outside but I could feel my heart pounding, as I outlined my grievance and the dire situation:

1. I had spoke to customer service several times weeks and months prior to the flight trying to get out of it, but they assured me I would have no problem on the flight and would not refund my ticket as requested. They were wrong and now I was having an airborne reaction.

2. I was promised me a buffer zone, but that did not happen as evidence by the bag of peanuts in my hand, it was not clear if anyone onboard knew about my allergy or the buffer zone since it was violated. I spoke to the gate agent prior to the flight and was assured the flight crew would be informed of the allergy and buffer zone. I made this point very clear to the head attendant.

3. I brought my epi-pens, but if I needed to use them they would be required to make an emergency landing at the first possible opportunity.  I was insistent on this point.  I doubt they would accommodate this request today.  This is one thing that seems has changed with the increased awareness of the PA ANA and airlines are putting the burden of responsibility back on the passenger..

4. I also asked them to increase the amount of external air in brought into the cabin to clear out the allergens but I was told on modern aircraft like this that is no longer a capability they can control.

I just went back to the their need to make an emergency landing if I used the epi-pen, according to my doctors orders. And I could die.

I was standing in the first class galley and I had the potential for a great audience (witnesses, should my family need to sue for a wrongful death.) My next step at this point would be to back into the first class cabin and repeat it all so that everyone within earshot heard every word.  I thought that none of the business travelers would want the plane to have to land because of me. I didn’t have to actually do that, but I was getting ready to. I was a little surprised how long it took to finally agreed to stop serving peanuts … but only in my section, I told them no, it had to be in the whole airplane, since they had just told me about the air circulation and lack of fresh air. They could not serve any peanuts in the whole airplane. To which they finally agreed.

I was relieved that they stopped the peanut service before completing it, and then announced AN APOLOGY to everyone who didn’t get their goodies. I was at the time surprised they didn’t also call me out by name or seat number and the villain of this travesty.  I hung out in the galley for a while because I thought the air was fresher.  Eventually they asked me to return to my seat. I had managed to keep my anxiety in check until I sat down. If they THOUGHT this was anxiety driven they would discredit my concerns.

I went back to my seat and tried to calm down, but I couldn’t. I took Benedryl at some point, might have been before talking to the flight attendant, but I was panicking about a reaction that could come on as quickly as my previous experience from the allergens that I had already been exposed to.  About 30 minutes later I can’t take the anxiety any more so I found someone in our travel group who I thought was a doctor and he talked me down.  I returned back to my seat again and try to rest and figure out what I needed to do for the next leg of this journey.

A few hours later I had to go forward and talk to the head attendant again.

“I’m having a reaction to peanuts” I tell her. “I thought you said they would not serve any in the whole aircraft?”

She had a puzzled look and picked up the phone to the aft cabin and after confirming my suspicion she told them to stop immediately.

Yes, in fact they had started serving the peanut snacks in the back of the aircraft, behind the curtain where I couldn’t see it but the ventilation system had brought it forward to my location. I was furious.

The next leg of the journey

We landed and I went to customer service, restated the original complaints and described the omissions on the flight I had just finished. I Insisted that they put me on a different airline. They stonewalled me. They kept re-reading their peanut policy to me over and over again.

They could not guarantee that passengers wouldn’t have peanuts on the flight, they couldn’t guarantee that the cabin was free from trace residue of peanuts, SO, because of that why couldn’t they also serve peanuts during the flight?”

My favorite, and I even included it in my letter to the president of the airline was from the gate chief:

“Every airline that flies to Tel Aviv serves peanuts”

They just didn’t get it. I just fell back on the “I asked you to refund my ticket and you refused, and you assured me I would be safe, but that didn’t happen” so I was not going to back down. I was not going to risk 10 hours exposure in an aircraft, over the middle of the ocean.

I wouldn’t board the aircraft until I got the assurances I wanted. No peanuts served at all during the whole flight. Finally I was the last passenger left to board.  If I didn’t board the plane they would be required to find my luggage and remove it (post 9-11 requirement). This could delay the flight considerably. It was a standoff. Finally they agreed. The gate crew told me there would be no peanut service, and that would be OK “because it was a red-eye flight and the other passengers wouldn’t miss it too much”  OMFG!  I walked down the jetway and stood at the door of the airplane.

“I need to speak to the person in charge of the cabin.” Nothing…
“I’m not boarding until I speak to the person in charge of the cabin.”

The purser shows up and introduces himself. I said “when I boarded the plane in San Francisco the gate crew assured me that they had informed the flight crew about my situation, but apparently that didn’t actually happen.  So before I step on the plane you need to tell me exactly why I’m standing here and what you will be doing for me on this flight.”

The answer that I got was satisfactory. The flight was uneventful. I arrived and felt sick. Not sure if it was the stress, lack of sleep, allergen exposure or all of the above, I slept the next day through and the day after I saw a doctor who prescribed me some antihistamines and Valium. So before even starting the vacation I had already lost 2 days out of 14. On the 3rd day I call the travel insurance people telling them that they needed to put me on a different flight, but that went no where. My reasons were not covered by their policy. I had never bought travel insurance before and have not since, what a waste. I bought a one way ticket home on Lufthansa/United.

The trip included a gourmet dining plan, but I was so traumatized based on what had happened on the flight that I limited my food to to white bread, goat cheese, fresh fruit and hard-boiled eggs and nothing else the entire time I was in Israel.  These were the only foods I could feel were absolutely safe ingredients and free from any possible cross-contamination.

Whenever any of my fellow travelers encouraged me to try some other food I fell back on “I’m here to experience being in the Holy Land. If I have an allergic reaction I’ll miss out on that, so I’m not taking any chances.”

Getting home

I went to the airport for my flight which departed about 8 hours after the rest of the tour.  I said goodbye and they left about 10pm but I could not go through security until the following workday. There were  no seats or benches outside.  All the shops were closed. I circled the Tel Aviv airport pushing my luggage cart until 4am.

Finally, I got to go up to security hoping to get through and rest before boarding the aircraft. I had been awake for about 20 hours and I’m sure I did not look all that wonderful. They asked me to step into an office off to the side with my luggage. They asked me:

“Why are you not flying with the rest of your tour group?”
“Why do you have two plane tickets back to the US?”

When I saw the doctor in Jerusalem I had him write me a note on his letterhead stating that I was not to return to the US flying on the same airline that brought me due to the risk of peanut exposure. I also showed them my epi and Israeli prescriptions that corroborated my story.

They searched my luggage anyway because they probably thought I was a SUICIDE BOMBER. In hindsight I’m surprised it wasn’t a strip search.

After spending a wonderful time with friends in an amazing place I was quite lonely flying home alone, but when I boarded the aircraft I took a deep breath and the air felt safe, like stale cigarette smoke, but peanut free.  At least I rested on those flights. So I guess they were wrong, there are actually flights to Tel Aviv that don’t serve peanuts.

Epilogue

After I got home I gathered all the documentation, including records of the phones call, that I had, and was planning to sue the airline in small claims court. I spoke to a lawyer friend who agreed to help. First he had me write a letter to the airline and outline my grievances and claim. When I got no response he wrote a letter on his letterhead informing them he was representing me and I would be suing. That finally got a response. My claim was turned over to some secret department that no one knows about. It’s their job to make problems go away as cheaply as possible. They didn’t want a lawsuit.  My friend advised me that they were NOT going to settle because of the allergy, or the anxiety, or the inconvenience caused. Rather they were going to settle for three reasons and only three reasons: 1) they made certain promises to me, then failed to keep those promises, 2) I had a legitimate LTFA and medical problem (not the anxiety) because of #1 and saw a doctor at my own expense because of it. and 3) I had documented proof for both #1 and #2.  Without all 3 I wouldn’t stand a chance, and the settlement would not include pain/suffering/inconvenience.

I was excited when they made me the settlement offer, since I thought this was the beginning of a negotiation, and I wanted to fight for more, but I was advised by the attorney to take the offer and put it behind me. He said they wouldn’t negotiate with me directly, only through him, and I took it to mean that his pro bono services were no longer available. So I took the offer. It covered about 50% of the cost of the 2nd flight home.

I submitted the medical expense to my health insurance and got a partial reimbursement per my policy, I vowed to never fly them again…

 


 You can read the whole thing for free if you subscribe to KindleUnlimited. Here’s the book:

http://www.amazon.com/Living-Peanut-Anaphylaxis-Threatening-Allergies/dp/1512050814/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

 

© MICHAEL G SPORER AND LIVING WITH PEANUT ANAPHYLAXIS:ADULT VERSION, 2015

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