Nursing mothers get ham-fisted treatment from airlines

  • By Christopher Elliott Syndicated Columnist
  • Friday, September 14, 2012 12:38pm
  • LifeTransportation

When Martin Madrid got his seat assignments on a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, Fla., he spotted a problem: Even though the airline knew that he and his wife were flying with a 4-year-old and an infant, the couple had been assigned seats a few rows apart.

His wife, who was still nursing the baby, needed a little help, Madrid said. Couldn’t Delta just seat them together?

Isn’t Delta required to make a special allowance for nursing moms?

No. Airlines have traditionally had a tumultuous relationship with nursing mothers.

Many of the passengers who contact me are so embarrassed by their run-ins with crew members that they don’t want their names published. One woman traveling for business on American Airlines had left her 4-month-old son at home with her husband, but during the flight she visited the restroom to use a breast pump.

After a few minutes, a flight attendant made an announcement, “asking customers in the restroom to return to their seats, as other passengers also needed to use the restroom.”

I asked American Airlines about the incident, and a representative told me that the airline regrets what happened. “Our in-flight procedures advise our crew to ensure that breast-feeding mothers have the privacy they need and that other customers are not subjected to an uncomfortable situation,” a spokeswoman said. “Our in-flight personnel are trained to handle such situations with professionalism and discretion.”

American apologized and sent the passenger a $100 flight voucher.

The awkwardness with which airlines treat breast-feeding moms reflects the overall discomfort that many Americans feel toward nursing in public.

Many of the travelers I speak with regard breast-feeding as a private act that, if performed in public, should be done discreetly, especially in the confines of a commercial flight.

That attitude irks some breast-feeding advocates, who argue that nursing ought to be allowed anywhere, with no restrictions.

Given that nursing is such a hot topic, you’d think that the airline industry would have firm policies. It doesn’t.

I contacted all the major airlines and asked about their nursing rules. Two airlines offered a brief response. Delta “supports a mother’s right to breast-feed,” according to a spokeswoman. A United Airlines spokesman told me, “I’m not able to find any such policy.”

Those statements suggest that the No. 1 and No. 2 airlines in the United States leave it up to their flight attendants to decide what is and isn’t appropriate.

Ditto for US Airways. “There is no formal or informal policy regarding breast-feeding,” spokesman John McDonald told me. But crew members know what they ought to do, he was quick to add.

Southwest Airlines has no formal rule on breast-feeding, either. But spokeswoman Linda Rutherford offered some advice: “We just ask that nursing mothers use good judgment and exercise discretion in deference to other customers who depend on us to provide a comfortable travel experience.”

The airline suggests that “mothers who plan on breast-feeding onboard the aircraft carry a small blanket or jacket to protect their privacy, since we currently do not stock our aircraft with blankets.”

The only major airline with a formal breast-feeding policy is American. It places no restrictions on mothers traveling with infants and allows breast-feeding during all phases of flight, according to a company representative.

As for Madrid, he phoned Delta a few days before his flight and explained his family’s situation to a representative. “It took her 30 minutes, but they got us seated together,” he said.

&Copy; 2012 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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