A whiff of peanuts can make his nose burn, eyes water and throat swell up so much he has to struggle for the next breath. "It feels like I've been punched in the face," Rob Durkee said. "Or Maced."
The 33-year-old sound technician from Oldsmar is allergic to peanuts. You might think the last place he'd put himself is inside an aluminum tube at 35,000 feet with 150 or so strangers munching snacks for several hours.
But Durkee landed a sweet gig managing the sound system for Cheap Trick's Sgt. Pepper Live show at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas last month. He picked an airline that agreed not to serve peanuts on board. He bought an epinephrine injection to counter a severe allergic reaction.
What could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out.
The issue of how airlines should accommodate people like Durkee has received a lot of attention lately. Last month, the Department of Transportation said it was considering three alternatives to help an estimated 1.8 million Americans who have severe peanut allergies.
The headline grabber was a ban on serving peanuts and peanut products. Also on the table were requiring peanut-free flights for allergic travelers and setting up peanut-free buffer zones in the cabin.
After getting an earful from peanut farmers and processors, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood admitted his agency couldn't regulate how airlines served the snack. At least not until sending Congress a study that proved airborne peanut dust posed a health hazard to air travelers.
Turns out, most airlines already adopted policies addressing the peanut problem. US Airways, Continental, JetBlue and United voluntarily stopped serving packaged peanuts.
Durkee picked Southwest, which serves other snacks on the flight if allergic passengers ask in advance. Southwest also advises that they take the first flight out, before peanut dust builds up in the cabin.
Durkee boarded early and cleaned seats and tray tables with alcohol wipes. Everything was good on the five-hour flight and his monthlong stint in Vegas.
Until his last night. As Durkee loaded up equipment, a co-worker eating peanuts breathed into his face from inches away. His throat turned thick, his breathing labored. A runner rushed him to the hospital, where he stabilized after getting steroids, Benadryl and some rest.
Still shaken, Durkee went to catch his afternoon Southwest flight home. A gate agent forgot to preboard him. Peanuts and wrappers littered the seats and floor. He walked out before the door closed.
Durkee plunked down $370 for a ticket back to Tampa the next morning on peanut-free US Airways. He wanted the crew to make an announcement informing passengers he had a peanut allergy. Employees at the ticket counter and gate told him to speak with the flight attendant on the plane, Durkee said.
He did. Then the flight attendant went ahead with the standard safety speech. When Durkee balked, a customer service supervisor came aboard and said the airline couldn't prevent passengers from eating food they carried on board.
Then, he said, she asked about his reaction to peanuts and told him, "We can't have you on this plane."
US Airways tells a different story. Durkee "created a ruckus, speaking loudly and getting agitated," said spokeswoman Michelle Mohr. The supervisor said US Airways couldn't guarantee him a peanut-free cabin, she said, and he chose not to take the flight.
Durkee flew home that day on United, a jacket draped over his head for most of the time. He needs to be back in Vegas on Sunday to resume the Cheap Trick show. He was still deciding Tuesday whether to drive or take another flight.
"If I fly," he said, "I'll definitely wear a mask."
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.