Make us your home page

Peanut allergies turn flying into nightmare for Oldsmar man

Rob Durkee recovers at a Las Vegas hospital after an allergic reaction to peanuts.

Photos courtesy of Rob Durkee

Rob Durkee recovers at a Las Vegas hospital after an allergic reaction to peanuts.

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 or (813) 226-3384.

Peanut allergies turn flying into nightmare for Oldsmar man 07/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 2:28pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Why are so few Tampa Bay houses for sale? They're being rented

    Real Estate

    Oreste Mesa Jr. owns a modest 40-year-old house in West Tampa just off MacDill Avenue. It's an area where many homeowners are hearing the siren song of builders and cashing out while the market is strong.

    Attorney David Eaton poses in front of his rental home at 899 72nd Ave. North. in St. Petersburg. He's among a growing number of property owners who see more value in renting out unused homes than selling them. 
[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]

  2. Wanted: New businesses on Safety Harbor's Main Street

    Local Government

    SAFETY HARBOR — A green grocery store, a hardware store, restaurants, boutiques and multi-use buildings are all wanted downtown, according to discussion at a community redevelopment workshop held last week. And to bring them to the Main Street district, city commissioners, led by Mayor Joe Ayoub, gave City Manager …

    Whistle Stop Bar & Grill is one of the main stops on Main Street in Safety Harbor. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
  3. Q&A: A business leader and historian jointly delve into Tampa's waterfront


    TAMPA — As a native of Tampa, Arthur Savage has always had a passion for his hometown's history. And as a third-generation owner and operator of A.R. Savage & Son, a Tampa-based shipping agency, his affinity for his hometown also extends to its local waterways.

    Arthur Savage (left) and Rodney Kite-Powell, co-authors of "Tampa Bay's Waterfront: Its History and Development," stand for a portrait with the bust of James McKay Sr. in downtown Tampa on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. McKay, who passed away in 1876, was a prominent businessman, among other things, in the Tampa area. He was Arthur Savage's great great grandfather. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  4. Tampa's connected-vehicle program looking for volunteers


    TAMPA — Drivers on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway can save on their monthly toll bill by volunteering to test new technology that will warn them about potential crashes and traffic jams.

    A rendering shows how new technology available through the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority will warn driver's about crashes, traffic jams, speed decreases and more. THEA is seeking 1,600 volunteers to install the devices, which will display alerts in their review mirrors, as part of an 18-month connected-vehicle pilot.
  5. What Florida's top Republicans are saying about Donald Trump

    State Roundup

    Republicans nationwide are blasting President Donald Trump for how he responded to Charlottesville.

    U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the violence this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia at the White House on August 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed in Charlottesville when a car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields Jr. barreled into a crowd of counter-protesters following violence at the 'Unite the Right' rally. Two Virginia state police troopers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while covering events on the ground. [Getty Images]