Peanut Allergies (Announcements on UK Flights)
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): A few months ago, my constituent Helena Erwin and her young daughter Emily visited me at my constituency advice centre in Ballymena. Helena told me of her desire as a mother to ensure that her child was kept safe while travelling. Emily has a very severe peanut allergy that requires her to be kept away from contact with peanuts for fear of anaphylactic attack, which could be deadly.
The family only became aware of this condition when they were on a family holiday and Emily was taken seriously ill. Subsequently, her consultant reported that she has “an instant and extreme allergic reaction.”
Any parent of a child who requires special attention or care knows that that means constant care and attention daily, which has a broad impact. That is the case with this child, Emily. Her GP told her mother that in future, for all air travel, she will need to inform the carrier of her daughter’s condition. Her older sister has been taught how to recognise signs of anaphylaxis and what to do in an emergency, and her contemporaries, cousins, family and school friends have had to be told what consumables Emily cannot be exposed to. The adult members of her family have each been trained to use an EpiPen and know how to administer her medication, which must accompany her at all times.
The Erwins go abroad for work and recreation, and as a result of their travel experiences, Helena contacted me to raise awareness of the needs, particularly when travelling, of the many people who, like her precious daughter, suffer from anaphylaxis and could be helped by greater awareness and safety announcements, particularly onboard aeroplanes.
It is important to put things in perspective. In 2013, there were 1,300 emergency admissions to A and E units in English hospitals following adverse food reactions and shock, and there have been six deaths in the past 13 months across the UK from anaphylaxis caused by food. Today, when we board a flight, we hear several standardised announcements, all of which we are very familiar with and are designed for our own safety: “Fasten your seatbelts”, “Put your folding table away”, “Stow your baggage”, “Keep window blinds up for take-off and landing”, and “Put down your seat’s arm rest”. There are also announcements about when and where smoking is permitted, and where and when a passenger can use a telephone or computer. We are well used to these announcements; those are just seven that I, as a regular commuter to Parliament, hear each week while flying.
From time to time, but randomly—the crux of the issue—I hear allergy announcements. When I do, I accept that they are made for my safety and that of fellow travellers, and that they should be obeyed. However, it is the random nature of the peanut allergy announcements that has prompted this debate. The Minister and his Government can do something practical and positive to help. He can ensure that tonight we begin a process to
achieve a consistent style of announcement on all flights, so that public safety is increased. I am not campaigning for prohibitions; I am championing the case for consistent safety announcements when required or requested by a traveller.
Let me tell the House about the current inconsistent state of affairs. I have with me a report on 36 air carriers that fly to the United Kingdom and their policies on food allergies and announcements. Is there one consistent approach? No, there are 36 different approaches. To be fair, some airlines are doing their best, but a consistent, universal approach would actually be welcomed by the airlines as a beneficial starting point.
I want to tell the House a little about what Emily experienced on a recent flight. I asked her mother to write out the details, and it is important that they be put on the record:
“We incurred a 6 hour delay. An aircraft and crew were flown in from Paris to take us home. It was very obvious from when we stepped onto the flight that the crew were not happy at being there. We spoke to the crew member who knew nothing about us and didn’t even understand what a nut allergy was due to the language barrier. I do carry a translation card but this was in Spanish and not French.
Eventually with much explaining from ourselves and some other passengers seated around us, the crew understood what we meant but refused to make an announcement. Their reason being simply they didn’t have to. My husband and I were by now beginning to get distressed as was our 6 year old daughter Lucy. We repeatedly asked and asked for the announcement to made, eventually we were told in a minute, other passengers were now starting to pass the information back and shouting at the crew on our behalf. The doors of the aircraft had been closed and my husband and I were now thinking about asking to get off the flight rather than take the chance. At this point the crew member agreed to make the announcement and when he made it was given a round of applause by all the passengers. As a family this was a very humiliating situation to be in and very upsetting for Lucy. About 2 hours into the flight the crew member actually apologised to us but we did not get an explanation why he wouldn’t announce it to begin with.
On returning home I called the CAA and got speaking to a Doctor from the medical department. He gave me a few pieces of advice. He felt any risk posed to my daughter would be from 3-4 rows in front or behind me and had I considered policing these rows myself to see what people are eating? All this while I am responsible for 2 small children and also adhering to the seatbelt signs. Another suggestion was just don’t fly. Take a boat!”
I think that tells its own story about the inconsistency, and shows that airlines require what I am suggesting. They probably need an impetus to drive them to come up with a policy that will work.
Since I secured this Adjournment debate, I have been inundated with calls and e-mails from people across the United Kingdom. The story of Andy Hyams is well documented. He and his suffering daughter were alleged to have been bullied off a flight because no announcement was made. It is easy to understand why a parent would not want their child to stay on a flight in those circumstances; they could not move away if there was a problem. If the issue arises in a hotel or in public, people can at least leave, but they cannot get off an aeroplane when it is in flight.
Another constituent, Francis, wrote to me to say that “unless you actually go through the stages of death by anaphylactic shock, until you are left with your lifeless child in your arms, it is very hard to imagine what happens.”
Frank had that experience, and said that it was only when people saw it happening that they realised the huge need to address this issue.
Another lady, Danielle Toner, wrote to me to say of airlines that “yes some will make an announcement, others will not. When you have a child in a confined space with a life threatening condition I feel it is a must that airlines should be accountable for all passengers on their flights.”
I think she makes a very good point on behalf of her little six-year-old boy, who suffers from this condition.
These allergic reactions affect one in 50 children in the United Kingdom, and I think the Minister knows that something needs to be done about this now. Putting in place a requirement that a consistent announcement, agreed with the Civil Aviation Authority, be made on a passenger’s request should not be beyond the scope of this House, or the care of this Government.
I do not believe that new legislation is necessary, but if it is, there is an opportunity to make the Consumer Rights Bill, currently in the other place, the legislative vehicle to get this job done. I appeal to the Minister to put Emily’s law in place. Let us do something to make the airlines announce consistent messages on peanut and other food allergies, so that people can travel in safety and feel that they are not being hindered in any way or having their rights taken away from them. I appeal to the Minister to do something about this.