British Airways Attendent Wins Gluten-Free Lawsuit

Who does't love airplane food?

I’m not quite sure what to make of today’s post, to be honest, but I thought the story was worth sharing.

According to Britain’s Daily Mail, a flight attendent for British Airways, one Mr. Frank Duckworth, has recently won a lawsuit he brought against his employer. The flight attendent had been employed by the airline for more than 20 years, and in the fall of 2010 he ate a mushroom risotto while working a flight from London to Las Vegas. The risotto aggravated his celiac disease and his diabetes, the lawsuit claimed, and Mr. Duckworth had to spend several days in the hospital before being well enough to fly back to Britain.

Once in Britain, he saw a doctor appointed by British Airways, and was declared unfit to fly (but able to work on the ground). The past 18 months have been a back and forth of overturned rulings, during which Mr. Duckworth only recently been granted the right to resume flying. Hence, the lawsuit, in which he was awarded £8500 (appx $13,200) ‘in respect of injury to feelings’ and in lost wages.

The Daily Mail quotes Mr. Duckworth as saying, “I believe I was being pushed out and forced to leave British Airways and from a job which I’ve done well and enjoyed for over 20 years,” and writes that the judge said airline staff had not moved quickly enough to get Mr. Duckworth back in the air. The airline is still not providing gluten-free meals and it is unclear from the article whether or not Mr. Duckworth will resume flying longer flights at all.

So, there are a lot of questions here, but I’m curious what you think. Certainly here in America celiac disease is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and so a company would be expected to make accommodations. And certainly most airlines will provide a gluten-free meal for customers on long flights — so should British Airways have provided gluten-free meals for their employee? Or should he have been responsible for providing his own meal (but allowed to store it on board the plane)?

If you work in an industry where your access to food is limited (perhaps you work long shifts in a hospital, or you are a teacher who only has access to the school cafeteria, or you are a business consultant and you are often at the behest of your clients), what do you do to keep yourself safe at mealtime? What accommodations do you feel are fair to expect of an employer?

38 thoughts on “British Airways Attendent Wins Gluten-Free Lawsuit”

  1. If the employer provides meals for the employees, they should have to provide a gluten free meal for the celiac employee or provide some sort of compensation for denying that benefit to the employee.

  2. Sure, airlines will provide GF meals on a long flight. But it has to be longer than 5 hours (non-stop). To fly from Washington DC to Hawaii, I must bring a 12-hour supply of food (that TSA will allow, of course) — the flight to the West coast is a little less than 5 hours, as is the flight from Calif. to Hawaii.
    It is absolutely wrong for British Air to deny the attendant his standard work schedule, just because once in 20 years he was “glutened”! I thought they were much were celiac-aware in Great Britain. Good luck!

  3. I am a business interpersonal communications consultant and I would not presume my clients were responsible for providing me with gluten free meals, even if I’m on a job site for hours. I have some companies who do make provisions if we have a working lunch, but I never expect or assume anything. In business consulting, one has many freedoms, including taking time away to find a healthy, safe meal alternative.

  4. I agree with Jennifer; if a company provides meals he should have been given a gluten free meal. I am so tired of arguing with airlines and places to travel just to get a gluten free meal. It is not an easy thing to do.

  5. This is really interesting. My school offers all faculty and staff a hot lunch every day of the school year. It is quality food, in a nice separate dining room from the students…and never gluten free. I have been annoyed at times, bringing my own food as this is considered a benefit which I cannot use/enjoy but is considered part of the schools offerings to employees. I don’t expect them to produce a special meal for just me, I am also allergic to soy/nightshades/tree nuts. But I would appreciate those funds kicked back or at least accommodated at the few all employee celebrations in some way.

  6. Interesting . . . I flew British Airways to the UK in March and in advance I requested gluten free meals. I received a GF dinner and then the next morning got my GF labeled boxed breakfast. When I opened it there was a muffin and a couple other things. In my head I thought . . . “wow I didn’t know that Otis Spunkmeyer makes GF muffins” and then (Thank God) my instinct said to read the label. The first ingredient was “wheat.” We pointed this out to the flight attendant who was very appologetic and replaced it with a fruit cup.

    In reply to the employer question, not on a regular basis, but my employer periodically provides food when we have heavy work and people can’t get out for lunch, etc. or as treats such as cake for monthly birthdays, etc. For the most part, I get left out. For instance the cake is not GF, when they order pizzas they are not GF, etc. When they order something like pasta, they’ll point out to me that the side salad is GF (whoopdy doo). I always bring my lunch so it’s never been a big deal, but I have to say I hate when they order pizzas for everyone (but me). Not only do I miss out, but the conference room where they put the pizza is next door to my office and the smell is torture.

  7. I travel a lot for business. If I know I have to eat through a meal with a client, I tell them about Celiac and then guide them by asking for things like a salad with no croutons, dressing on the side or fresh fruit for breakfast. I arrive early at the airport and scout out “carry-on food” for flights where there is no gluten-free meal option or when I know the gluten free meal option is pretty inedible. And, mostly, I’ve learned to lower my expectations about being able to eat on an airplane. Lots of gluten free bars and water. When I’m able to fly business class it’s tough as I watch the 4 course meal come out. But, that’s a lot better than being sick.

  8. This is very consistent with my experience with British Airways, they do not care about the gluten-free flyer (the muffin story doesn’t surprise me AT ALL) and I’m not surprised their cavalier attitude extends to employees.

  9. While I GREATLY appreciate any accommodation made to my Gluten Free needs, I certainly don’t EXPECT the world to fall at my feet. The problem is MINE. I am an adult and I know that I will have to eat.. I take some emergency accommodation with me if I feel there may not be access to GF foods. Once, on Amercian Airlines, I had brought my own GF sandwich on a return flight from Hawaii. They ran our of sandwiches and I was one of very few with ANYTHING to eat. It is an inconvenience, but it is MY responsability . God belss those who wilingly make special accommodation. With the abundance of food allergies now occuring
    no one could provide a “safe” menu for every possibility. It is getting MUCH easier to survive as a Celiac. Many more really tasty foods are readily available. I have tried to “quit whining” and live with my own solutions. I’ve dealt with this for a LONG time.

  10. Bravo, Dianne. I’ve long been weary of this entitled mindset that we find ourselves in. The world does not – should not – bow to the least common denominator. It’s an epidemic.

    I felt this way prior to developing my gluten sensitivity and I feel no different now.

    As for the original story we’re replying to – it strikes me as particularly litigious and an extreme reaction to a single case of gluten contamination in a 20 year career. The fact that it also caused a diabetic reaction tells me that Mr. Duckworth probably needs to pay closer attention to what he puts in his mouth in general.

  11. British Airways does provide GF meals, but not on their sleeper flights in business class. Meals are provided ahead in their lounge, which does not provide GF on either side of the Atlantic. It would take nothing to provide a GF meal on the flight, but they have not headed any of our requests over the years. So if the attendant was on such a flight, it is no wonder there was no GF meal for him.

  12. He doesn’t expect the company to provide him special meals. He probably thought the risotto and rice was safe; however his lawsuit is because the company didn’t allow him to resume his flight attendant position for 18 months.
    He feels he was being forced out of a position that he had “enjoyed for over 20 years”. It seems to me he has a good case for that.

  13. I also carry food with me on the airplane. While GF meals are available from some airlines, I worry that there will be a mix up and my meal won’t get on to the plane (no take out options at 35,000 feet) or that it is not really GF or that there will be cross contamination. Its a hassle, but I would rather be hungry than sick. I carry all of my food in a separate paper bag with handles, so it doesn’t take up space in my carry-on bag and a food only bag doesn’t count as a carry on. So, I have two carry-ons plus my snack bag.

    As far as at work, I bring my own food everyday. I can relate to Debby’s comment about the cake and pizza (we had a lunch meeting today with pizza). I do feel left out, but on the flip side, it keeps me from eating things I probably shouldn’t. While my coworkers are sucking down loads of calories, fat, and sugar in the form of cake and pizza, I eat something that is not only GF, but fits with all of my other nutritional goals and needs. Sometimes, being GF saves me from myself. In the past, I wouldn’t have thought twice about that second (and sometimes third) piece of cake. Now, its simply not an option.

  14. If they already provide low sodium, vegetarian, diabetic friendly, and other special meals for employees with special dietary needs then yes, they should provide a gluten free alternative.
    That said, what is wrong with taking his own food? I do that almost everywhere I go. It’s not worth being RIGHT if you’re also going to be SICK.
    Just learn to live in harmony and take care of yourself.

  15. My husband and I both have gluten enteropathy. I always send safe food to work with my husband, and the hospital where he works provides a salad bar and baked potato bar. We never complain at restaurants, but when someone actually has a gluten free menu, and when they go out of their way to make sure we’re safe, they receive an abundant tip. Those who care most certainly deserve it.

  16. I have had Celiac since 2004, and have “survived” by taking responsibility for my own condition…my sister presented me with 4 different colored lunch bags with figures on them..imagine the envy of those people admiring my neat lunch bags..
    By the way, my life has become MUCH easier these days since more people have been diagnosed and my friends are even bringing GF foods to our senior center. They help me to discover more variety in my foods and more places that help people with Celiac…
    Thank you for bringing attention to Celiac…have a great day…

  17. I agree that if the airline can offer GF meals to passengers, they should have them for their staff. Personally I think the staff should be the priority. However, it is the ultimate responsibility of the employee to be aware of his meal choices and ingredients in them. I always bring my own food to work adn when I travel. You just can’t be sure of food that others make. Inconvenient, yes. But it’s worth the peace of mind.

  18. Debby, I just read your comment and have the same feeling – I hate when they order pizza at work! I honestly prefer to make my own pizza because I know it is much healthier, but the junky salads offered by the pizza places are not appealing enough for me to order. It does make me feel a little unimportant to the office management.

  19. If an American airline company, the ADA would require the airline to make accommodations for their flight attendants on long flights across time zones/meal times who have celiac disease. It’s not the same as giving a pizza party to their employees at the airport or company headquarters.

    Travelling by air internationally with celiac disease is very challenging. If an airline does not offer gluten-free meals for some destinations, a passenger with celiac disease would either starve or be on a diet due to the number of meals missed! Carry on luggage limitations, airport security, and customs (when disembarking in a new country) make carrying on all dietary needs virtually impossible. There are simply not enough gluten-free options in all airports and in some countries, gluten-free food is very limited.

  20. I am a flight attendant with a US-based airline, and I’m celiac. I do take responsibility for my own food, but on a three-day or an international trip, eventually, I run out of food. I can only carry so much. While airports are getting much better at providing a wider variety of food, it isn’t always so, especially at smaller airports. Many times, I’ve been happy to have found a banana and yogurt as the ONLY GF options. Our airline has taken the position that it will NOT provide a GF option for crew meals. I usually opt for the salad, but more than once it has come loaded with croutons, if there is a crew meal provided at all. A few years ago, I bought a salad at an airport concession that made me incredibly sick (asking the server was useless, so I took a gamble). The airline refused to allow me medical leave for celiac, rather than sick leave, saying, in the words of the medical reviewer, “I don’t see that it’s any different that having the flu.” As you can see, I’m still a little peeved.

  21. If we start suing companies everytime we get poisoned, then the business response will be to mitigate their risk. That will only hurt us.

  22. Traveling is difficult and I always lose weight on trip, which in my case is a bad thing. I carry with me at all times individual peanut butter packets (available on the internet or Whole Foods), gluten free crackers or rice chips, and gluten free-dairy free snack bars. This helps with challenging situations, especially breakfast as my wheat/dairy issue leaves me only with fruit and eggs.

  23. He didn’t sue because he got poisoned. He sued because he was grounded after being poisoned. The disease, in the company’s view, apparently made him unfit to fly. He just wanted his job back.

    If an airline provides meals for the employees on the plane, then they should provide a gluten-free one for any employee who needs one. If it does not provide meals for all employees, then I would hope they provide space for them to store the food they must bring on board.

  24. It’s my understanding that in England, Celiac Disease is a medical condition that allows gluten free foods to be purchased via a prescription from a licensed medical specialist (a doctor). This comes from my brother-in-law whose daughter has Celiac disease.

  25. If Mr. Duckworth has been working for this airline for 20 yrs.,surely he should have known whether the airline provided gf food for its employees. When I go to a restaurant and order a gluten free item on the gf menu, I still verify with the server that I am getting gf food. I feel that he should have assumed the responsibility for his food. I would like to think that diabetics do not or should not expect the airline to provide them with their food on a long distance flight. Being gluten or diary, or soy intolerant , or being celiac, do we not have gf items at home so that we can have snacks while driving or while at work before our workday ends? I feel that Duckworth’s lawsuit was frivilous at best and I feel the airline was justified in giving him a ‘land’ job. At least on land he could get the type of food he requires. I think that he wanted things both ways—hold the airline responsibile for his discomfort and yet, be in control of when he should go back to work. I do think, however, that 18 months is excessive, but I think Duckworth precipitated this issue. Even though he was not in his same position, was he still getting paid while working on his land job? In 20 yrs., was this Duckworth’s first long distance flight?

  26. Due to the increased awareness and number of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance, etc. I think it’s quite appropriate for airlines to provide a GF meal/snack on long flights just as they provide vegetarian options and many big carriers do. Yes of course we should all be responsible for our own “special needs” but basic GF is not a big deal for the airlines to provide. It’s not like it’s a super special request like GF, dairy, soy and nut free. We need to know what level of risk we are willing to take regarding the airline food vendor and move on. We should always be prepared for the inevitable muffin in a GF breakfast box and have GF backup….hope for the best and prepare for the worst! For any pizza lovers who have not heard, Domino’s now has GF pizza!

  27. It’s always interesting to see who gets blamed for what in these stories and how closely read the original article is or isn’t. Katie points out rightly that Mr. Duckworth didn’t sue because he got poisoned, he sued because he became discriminated against for an episode presumably not of his making (consuming risiotto that may or may not have been advertised as GF).

    He’s also blamed for his diabetes: “needs to pay closer attention to what he puts in his mouth in general.” Interestingly, celiac disease and gluten intolerance can manifest through various neural pathways and one associated effect is an auto-immune attack on the islet cells, which produce insulin. So diabetes can be an outcome of gluten consumption (prior to diagnosis), not always what one consumes.

    Many other airlines provide GF meals for longer flights; British Airways is surprisingly behind the times on this one. And for a country that lets you buy GF foods with prescriptions, too!

  28. I will not discuss the philospohical aspect here but I woudl like to say Bravo to BA for our recent experiences. My 16 yr old daughter and I just traveled to Greece and then back from Italy on BA flights. The airline was VERY accomodating and she received GF meals each way. We needed to put in a request 48 hrs in advance and we did. She was very impressed with their kindness and efforts. She is also dairy free so when she could not determine whether the one meal item contained milk, I asked the stewardess for a fruit plate and she was brought the most delicious fruit! She has already had berries and she said all the fruit was some of the best she has tasted! At least for international flights I can not see why an employee shoudl have troubl egetting a GF meal. BA has tons of specific meal options. It blew my mind when I saw all the ones listed.

  29. Colleen,you and my daughter seem to be in the same boat, so to speak. She travels with the same items as you do, but she also brought tuna packs with her which do not take up a lot of space and are lighter than a can. They were a lifesaver for lunches with crackers in Europe. Can you do tuna/salmon? She has discovered that she can tolerate sheep cheese(pecorina) so it is great for pizzas (Manchego available at Whole Foods but best price at Costcos and TJs and for salads ther is a sheep feta from Israel at TJs that is delic) .

  30. I will not discuss the philospohical aspect here but I woudl like to say Bravo to BA for our recent experiences. My 16 yr old daughter and I just traveled to Greece and then back from Italy on BA flights. The airline was VERY accomodating and she received GF meals each way. We needed to put in a request 48 hrs in advance and we did. She was very impressed with their kindness and efforts. She is also dairy free so when she could not determine whether the one meal item contained milk, I asked the stewardess for a fruit plate and she was brought what she said was “the most delicious fruit ever!” wow that is quite the compliment. I had not known she had already been served mixed berries and she said all the fruit was some of the best she has tasted! At least for international flights I can not see why an employee should have trouble getting a GF meal. BA has tons of specific meal options. It blew my mind when I saw all the ones listed. They seem to really be makign an effort.

  31. When I worked in an office in California, the admin ordering celebration meals was careful to include me – a fruit tray usually accompanied a birthday cake. Now I telecommute and use my own kitchen, which makes things much simpler. I pack sack lunches or the boxed GF snack meals for business trips, and always pack a couple extra for the occasional stranding. I have found hotel servers very happy to check the prep and accomodate, though in one week long stay I had much the same meal each time I used the hotel restaurant (variations on salad with Chicken) and for some reason no rice available so I low-carbed and lost some pounds (a good thing.)

  32. My employer regularly provides lunch for our office. There are 2 of us with Celiac and 1 who is vegan. We are never provided anything and must sit and watch our coworkers eat during our lunch-time meetings. Since no accommodation is made for us, I think we should be compensated or given the opportunity to have a meal we can enjoy.

    I also feel that British Airlines needs to provide food for the employee if he’s on the flight and unable to readlily access food on his own. Otherwise, he needs to be compensated for the cost of providing his own food. What is fair for one is fair for all.

  33. I have diabetes type 1 and celiac disease and I take responsibility for providing my own food at work…and I work 24 hr shifts. I fail to see how risotto can provoke a “diabetic reaction” Either his blood glucose went to high or too low, and either way it’s his own fault for not taking the correct amount of insulin. It’s typical of the British attitude nowadays, “everyone is responsible for you and you’ll sue if they fail in their responsibilities.” (I’m British too, so I’m allowed to be rude :D)

  34. I am on a Ketogenic Paleo diet and practice Intermittent Fasting. This allowed me to land a job during a 7 hour, 7 person interview when I travelled and had almost no food for 24 hours. I binged at Logan’s Legal Seafoods (excellent!) for lunch prior to the flight. The flight landed too late to go to any of the restaurants that research indicated were gluten-free. The complimentary breakfast was all processed gluten junk. I brought with me biltong (jerky) and pemmican, which I made from buffalo fat mixed with powdered dry meat. I scrupulously avoided carbs (other than Legal Seafood), especially all forms of sugar. My body thought it was starving and entered ketosis- my body was burning fat stores and using ketones as fuel. To do this, you have to avoid carbs as a small amount will take the body out of ketosis. It takes 3 weeks of hell to adapt but, when you do, you feel wonderful! I was also used to fasting, so I was not uncomfortable. The saturated fats; medium and short chain fatty acids, from the buffalo tallow gave me extra fuel for the grueling interviews. I did great and got the job! Some in the Paleo lifestyle eat straight butter (preferably grass-fed like Kerry Gold) when nothing else is available. Coconut oil is amazing, but is liquid around 70-80 F. The TSA might not allow these fats depending on the form and the thug who is doing the check, so make it look like food and get a doctor’s note describing the foods. Chia seeds are also great. Plop them into water or V-8 and they expand into a hunger relieving gel and burn slowly. Again, this takes getting used to and avoid carbs, even fruits and fruit juice! Also, carry plenty of immodium and activated charcoal. If you suspect gluten, vomit it all out ASAP and then take the activated charcoal. I was taken to a restaurant as part of the interview and I got glutenized when the manager had no clue about the gf menu they advertised and thought I was allergic to soy after reading the English/Spanish Celiac restaurant cards and they had also put on contaminated rice and then taken it off, thinking I wouldn’t notice! I was also served a baguette as part of Air France’s gluten-free meal! Idiots!

  35. Wow, that guy has been working there for 20 years and doesn’t know what he can eat? That is kind of surprizing. He ate a meal full of carbs and it aggrivated his diabetes. I can barely believe it!!! When are some people going to take responsibility for their actions?

  36. At the school where I teach, the teachers take turns providing meals for each other every Friday. So twice a year I have to provide meals for the thirty odd teachers with whom I work.

    Yet I can’t eat any of the food they provide.

    This coming fall I’m going to ask if I can bow out. After all, I bring food from home and provide for myself EVERY Friday. It’s getting old.

    This is a volunteer thing (like Secret Santa), but everyone participates. By not participating, some people may think I’m being a prude.

    Oh well. :(

  37. To you who feel celiacs are not entitled to gluten free accomodations, someone probably also said the same thing long ago about accomodations (ie: wheelchair ramps, parking spaces, etc.) for the physically handicapped. Thank goodness humanity is evolving and it’s not all about shoving the weakest link to the side to keep things easy. Yes, it takes some work, but we are finally living in an age where we are taught to take care of one another.

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