Before Debbie Winsett boarded a recent Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Washington, a flight attendant added a surprise restriction to her ticket.
“While waiting to board, an agent announced that a passenger had a nut allergy and we should refrain from using or eating any nut products on the flight,” says Winsett, a real estate manager from Visalia, California. “Though I empathize with the allergic traveler, there were several comments from passengers who had bought or brought food containing nuts, and many wondered if they had to comply.”
As if tickets aren’t already limited enough – with restrictions on changes, luggage and refunds – now airlines are adding several new terms. While some of them are reasonable, such as accommodating a fellow traveler with a disability, others are puzzling to airline passengers. With the busy summer travel season in full swing, I have some strategies for coping with these surprise limits.
Delta’s peanut allergy policy, posted on a private site for travel agents, answers some of Winsett’s questions. If you tell the airline you have a peanut allergy, the carrier will refrain from serving peanuts and peanut products on the flight. It will stock the plane with additional non-peanut snacks, which allow flight attendants to serve these snack items to everyone.
“We’ll make an announcement asking that customers refrain from opening any peanut products they might have brought on board,” says Delta spokesperson Savannah Huddleston. “But we can’t guarantee that the flight will be completely peanut-free.”
In other words, Winsett could have sipped the almond milk she carried on board if she wanted. But peanuts were a no-no.
Some of the restrictions limit your movement. That’s what happened to Marjorie Yasueda, a retired San Francisco travel agent, when she flew from San Francisco to Seattle on Alaska Airlines. “Just before we landed in Seattle, the passengers were asked to remain seated while those making a very close connection disembarked,” she says.
The passengers without connections were understanding: “I did not hear a grumble,” she recalls. “In fact, some of the seated passengers started chanting, “Go! Go! Go!” while those people with a tight connection were disembarking. The whole thing made me feel good about my fellow human beings.”
That’s a best-case scenario. I’ve heard from many passengers who complain that the opposite happens: Flight attendants ask passengers to stay put as a courtesy to fellow travelers with connecting flights – but they don’t comply.
Still other restrictions deal with protocol. On Amy Bishop’s recent flight from Dallas to Louisville, Kentucky, a flight attendant made a somber announcement: Passengers should remain seated while the airline removed the casket of a fallen soldier.
“They removed the casket, performed a small ceremony and then loaded the casket into a hearse,” remembers Bishop, who owns a digital marketing agency in Salem, Indiana. “It was a short but moving procession.”
Her fellow passengers observed the moment of silence and remained in their seats, for the most part. “Most of the plane sat patiently, but a handful of people stood up to gather their things, and a few others chatted amongst themselves,” she recalls.
Other flight restrictions are more difficult to anticipate. The most common are weight limits on smaller aircraft, which must be correctly weighted for safety. That’s what happened to Scott Bawek on a flight from Rapid City, South Dakota, to Minneapolis. The Bombardier Regional Jet 200 was overweight, and the airline unloaded five bags from the plane, two of which were his. One contained a necessary medical device, which made the next flight to Minneapolis.
“They were delivered to my house at 9:45 p.m.,” says Bawek, who works for the federal government in Minneapolis.
How do you prepare for a surprise flight restriction? There’s no strategy beyond expecting the unexpected when you fly – which is always sound advice.
Allergy restrictions are the most contentious. Behind the scenes, a conflict is unfolding between passengers who carry allergy-inducing animals on board and those who suffer from allergies. In May, the Transportation Department solicited public comments on amending its Air Carrier Access Act regulation on transportation of service animals. The government wanted to know how it should distinguish between emotional support animals and other service animals and whether it should require emotional support animals to travel in pet carriers for the duration of the flight.
All told, the Transportation Department received more than 4,000 comments.
“As a traveler with allergies, the increasing numbers of pets taken in the aircraft cabin is a threat to my health,” wrote one commenter, Carol Meerschaert. “Why should I have to drug myself just to visit my family?”
Stephen Speakes, another commenter, wrote that he “absolutely” endorsed the practice of emotional support animals traveling with the person they support. “This needs to continue unchanged!” he said.
Stay tuned for the government’s decision.
Most surprise restrictions have a clear resolution. For example, asking passengers to stay in their seats is a question of common decency. You can wait the five minutes it takes for a few passengers to disembark so that they can make their connecting flights. The cabin crew shouldn’t have to ask twice. Same thing for paying final respects to a fallen soldier – it’s a no-brainer.
And the overweight luggage situation? That’s a much-needed reminder to travel light. Check your flight itinerary. If you see the words “regional jet” or “RJ” on your ticket, you’re flying on a smaller aircraft, which may have extra weight restrictions. Leave the heavy luggage at home.
The nut problem is a little harder to crack. Southwest Airlines announced in July it would stop serving its trademark peanuts Aug. 1 to protect passengers with nut allergies. Even consumer advocate Ralph Nader has weighed in with a campaign to save the airline’s trademark snack. So far, Southwest says it has no plans to change course.
Christopher Elliott is a journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.