When Martin Madrid got his seat assignments on a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, he spotted a problem: Even though the airline knew that he and his wife were flying with a 4-year-old and an infant — you have to tell the airline your birth date when you book tickets — the couple had been assigned seats a few rows apart.
Splitting up his family wouldn’t normally be a problem, said Madrid, an account manager for a health products company in Minneapolis, except that his wife, who was still nursing the baby, needed a little help. Couldn’t Delta just seat them together? “This is so irritating,” he said.
Madrid could, of course, pay extra for premium seats — but isn’t Delta required to make a special allowance for nursing moms?
No. Airlines have traditionally had a tumultuous relationship with nursing mothers. Emily Gillette, a passenger kicked off a Delta commuter flight in 2006 for refusing to cover herself with a blanket as she breast-fed her daughter, is a poster child for that conflict.
Gillette quietly settled a lawsuit against the carrier this year. But the subject of how airlines treat — or in some cases mistreat — nursing women comes up with some regularity.
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 recently e-mailed me on behalf of his wife, who was traveling on American Airlines for business. She 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,” her husband said. “I was appalled at the lack of professionalism and common sense of the in-flight crew.”
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. Last winter, the retail chain Target became the target of “nurse-ins” by angry mothers who were upset after a Houston-area woman was reportedly asked to stop breast-feeding her child at a local store. The protesters wanted Target to know that nursing isn’t “exhibitionism.”
Yet 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.