Peanuts: a Zero-Sum Game?

Sofie Miller Contributor
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With all the attention on financial regulation, health care reform and unemployment, you probably missed the news: peanuts are a controversial topic in regulatory studies. In June, the Department of Transportation issued a notice of proposed rulemaking which included a ban on serving peanuts on airplanes to make air travel safer for Americans with severe peanut allergies. This ban has been put onto the back burner because the DOT doesn’t have the statutory authority to ban peanuts without first proving its case; still, many citizens are weighing in on the idea.

Unlike many other common foods which trigger allergies, peanuts don’t have to be consumed in order to cause a severe, even fatal, allergic reaction. People who are allergic to peanuts can react to peanut residue left on airplane surfaces—think seat-back trays and toilet seats—and sometimes to airborne peanut particles circulating through the aircraft ventilation system. With this in mind, it makes sense that so many people are up in arms over peanuts.

Many airlines have responded to this shift in consumer preference. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), nine domestic airlines, including Continental, United, American, and US Airways, have voluntarily discontinued serving peanuts in coach class. Other airlines, such as Delta, continue to serve peanuts in-flight, but offer to create a peanut-free “buffer-zone” around any passenger with severe peanut allergies.

Although many airlines have policies for handling passengers with severe allergies, they can be inconsistently enforced and difficult to find online. The DOT’s Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule would try to address these problems by setting a single industry-wide standard: no peanuts.

The problem with a blanket policy is that it limits consumer options. This blanket policy would be no different. Because consumers have widely varying demands, mandating a single approach for meeting their needs is always going to make one group happy at the expense of another. In effect, an industry-wide mandate is a zero-sum game, and the Department of Transportation decides the winners and losers.

Allowing airlines to pursue different policies is part of the solution, not a part of the problem. As long as airlines give customers different options, the customers themselves can choose the flight that fits their needs best. The peanut-allergic businessman has different needs than the Georgian peanut-farmer, and their airline options should reflect this difference.

However, if the information isn’t available, consumers aren’t going to know that they have options, and differing policies aren’t going to make a difference to individuals with severe peanut allergies. If the DOT wants to regulate smartly, it should work to make the different airline policies available to the public.

The underlying problem identified by the DOT is that often, customers don’t know what they’re getting until they’ve boarded the flight. In this case, the problem isn’t peanuts: it’s information.

Sofie Miller recently graduated from Alfred University with a degree in political science. She is a Koch intern at the George Washington University Regulations Studies Center.