Mom Pooja Patel’s two unaccompanied minor sons were kicked off a connecting international flight in Seoul, South Korea last week — and she says that it was because of a nut allergy.
According to dad, Rakesh Patel, the two teenage boys were flying back to school in the Philippines after visiting their ill grandfather in Atlanta, Georgia. It was the first time they had ever traveled without their parents, who remained in Atlanta. The first leg of their trip, Atlanta to Seoul, was on Delta Airlines, and the connecting leg, Seoul to Manila, was to be on Delta partner Korean Air.
They never made the second leg. “My oldest son explained to the gate agents his severe peanut and tree nuts allergy — ingestion and airborne — which is what he does when boarding all Delta flights,” Pooja Patel wrote in a Facebook post which she later shared to the website No Nut Traveler (the Facebook post has been made unavailable since this story was first published). In it, she added that her son requested at the gate that the flight not serve peanuts and that they make an announcement requesting that other passengers on the flight refrain from eating peanuts. He also asked permission to board early to clean his seat. When the gate agent acquiesced, the boys boarded the flight and were seated.
At that point, the boys’ dad told TODAY Parents, a flight attendant told the boys that peanuts would in fact be served on the flight, even though the boys continued to tell the staff that serving peanuts around someone with an airborne allergy could mean anaphylaxis. The gate agent then offered the boys two options: stay on the plane with peanuts, or get off. Rakesh Patel said that no middle-ground solution (not serving peanuts around the boys, for example) was offered.
“Why are we putting people through that kind of distress?” the boys’ dad told TODAY Parents. “These are kids who are traveling alone, literally on the other side of the world, and they’re being forced off a plane — so people can eat nuts on the plane?”
The boys claim they "felt threatened" and were physically barred from getting back on the plane, according to Pooja's Facebook post. They complied but as they did, they FaceTimed their parents. In the post, Pooja wrote that the parents’ long-distance pleas went unanswered, and the boys were left at the gate.
The boys flew back to Atlanta — for a total of 39 hours of travel and layover time, and ended up where they had started.
“My wife and I are livid and angry; this is not right,” Rakesh Patel told TODAY Parents.
Both airlines are reviewing the incident.
In response to a request for comment, Korean Air sent TODAY Parents this statement Tuesday:
“Korean Air is aware that peanut and food allergies are an industry issue and no airline can guarantee a food allergy-free environment. But we are reviewing ways to deal with this issue in a safe and feasible way. We totally understand the risks faced by passengers with nut and food allergies and will certainly try to accommodate them better in the future. Korean Air sincerely apologizes to Mr. and Mrs. Patel and their sons. Customer service is a mainstay of the Delta and Korean Air partnership and we regret that the Patels experience did not reflect our common values. We are reviewing this incident and will strive to create a better customer experience.”
Delta Airlines sent the following comment to TODAY Parents: “We’re sorry for this family’s ordeal, and we are working with our partner Korean Air to examine the processes surrounding this incident. We will use our findings to create a consistent experience for customers flying Delta and our partner airlines.”
Rakesh Patel said he feels it’s imperative to make sure partner airlines follow consistent allergy guidelines to ensure the safety of all passengers.
“Instances like these leave an imprint on a young adult. It’s not right,” Patel said. “Personally I would advocate for a ban on serving raw peanuts on any plane — but until that happens, how about using common sense and consistent enforcement of policies? Make an effort to be sensitive to your passengers, which would tell the passenger, ‘We care about your life, we understand you have a severe allergy, and we’re going to take some common sense measures to limit your exposure as best we can.'”