Inside the Fight to Allow Flight Attendants and Pilots to Pump Breast Milk at 30,000 Feet
Breastfeeding parents across America won a major victory last December, when the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act—also called the PUMP Act—passed both houses of Congress and was signed into law.
The legislation, which went into effect at the end of April, expands protections to 9 million women to have a clean and private space to express breastmilk at work. Workers who had previously been excluded from the federal protections, including employees with managerial duties or those who work on commission, are now covered. The legislation also makes it easier for women to sue their employers if they’re not compliant with the regulations. But the final version of the law still excludes an important sector of the workforce: airline flight attendants and pilots.
Because nursing can bestow health benefits on both mothers and children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for newborns for the first six months if possible; the group also introduced new guidelines in 2022 to support continued breastfeeding for two years or possibly longer, if desired by both the mother and child. While lactating, women typically need to express breastmilk around every two to three hours. If they can’t do so for long stretches, it could lead to pain, infection, and a dwindling milk supply that leaves them unable to nurse their babies. This means that flight attendants and pilots returning to work after maternity leave need to pump while on the job, whether that’s on an aircraft during a long flight or in the airport.
But when the PUMP Act was being negotiated in the Senate, US airlines fought to have flight crews removed from the legislation (other airline employees who work on the ground were included). The lobbying group for the seven largest US carriers, Airlines for America, said in a statement that this was because its carriers “already voluntarily” provide time and accommodations for pumping and “in-flight crew duties are inherently unique.” They also brought up safety concerns. “The ability to perform both routine and emergency safety functions throughout the entire duration of a flight is fundamental to the jobs of both pilots and flight attendants.”
The airline group's stance implies that crew taking 15 to 20 minutes to pump on board would somehow put fliers in jeopardy, but flight attendants and breastfeeding experts say pumping on a plane is perfectly safe and poses no harm to passengers or crew. “Expressing milk absolutely can be, and in many cases already is, done safely aboard aircraft during non-critical phases of flight,” says Cheryl Lebedevitch, senior policy and communications manager at the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee. “Safety protocols are already in place to ensure flight attendants can step away from their duties when the plane is at cruise altitude to attend to other necessary physiological or personal needs, like using the restroom. This can easily be applied to lactation. If needed, crew members can cease milk expression in a matter of seconds, so there is no reason why they should not have the opportunity and protection to breastfeed their babies, as recommended by health authorities.”
“I gave up breastfeeding to provide for my family, and no one should have to make that choice again.”
While there are creative solutions to be used in a pinch, without an official policy flight attendants and pilots are left in the stressful situation of not knowing if they’ll be able to fit in lactation time while working. “Flight attendants are already pumping and expressing milk in flight even though the airlines have not provided any official breaks for pumping,” says a fact sheet provided by the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, the largest flight attendant union in the US That's because crew can't always just wait until they're on the ground: 88 percent of nursing flight attendants did not have sufficient pumping time between flights, according to a joint study by the AFA and another crew union.
A practical solution for nursing cabin crew was proposed by the AFA as part of the negotiations for the PUMP Act: “Airlines can provide a privacy curtain in the galley, similar to the ones already in place on many aircraft, with a latch or sign to not enter.” But the airline lobby group did not approve this either.
Very few airlines have clear policies
Hardly any US airlines provide clear guidelines for crew who need to pump. “I'm not aware of any airline that does this voluntarily,” a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA said in an email. But there are two airlines that have been petitioned by crew members and now have written lactation policies.
The AFA union was able to negotiate breastfeeding accommodations with Alaska Airlines. The flight attendants’ union contract states the airline will “make accommodations for lactating flight attendants on the aircraft provided it does not interfere with flight attendant duties and flight schedules. The company will also provide private areas at domiciles and training centers as long as it does not require expenditures of funds.”
Another carrier with clear policies is Frontier Airlines, which was recently sued by the ACLU in class action suits of flight attendants and pilots who alleged the airline discriminated against pregnant and lactating employees. In complaints to the court, one of the pilots described the toll a lack of pumping accommodations took on her body. “As a result of the lack of adequate breaks and sanitary facilities in which to pump, she regularly suffered from pain, engorgement, the humiliation of leaking breasts, and on two occasions, mastitis,” which is a serious infection usually caused by a blocked milk duct in the breast and is a result of not expressing milk.
Frontier settled the flight attendants’ suit in April 2022. As part of the agreement, the airline said cabin crew could utilize wearable lactation technology while working on planes. Many wearable pumps, like the Willow, are very discreet, with all the parts inserting directly into the user’s bra and allowing them to move freely. Having Frontier flight attendants use wearable breast pumps “does not jeopardize public safety,” Frontier’s VP of Labor Relations Jacalyn Peter said in a statement about the settlement. (The pilots’ case is still ongoing.)
“Future flight attendants won’t have to worry about how they are going to fit in pumping between flights or wonder where they will be able to pump safely,” Melissa Hodgkins, a Frontier flight attendant and plaintiff on the case, said after the settlement. “I gave up breastfeeding to provide for my family, and no one should have to make that choice again.”
Flight attendants, pilots, and advocacy groups are preparing for a long fight to ensure that mothers working aboard aircraft don't have to make those difficult decisions. “Your job should not dictate your infant feeding options," says Lebedevitch. "The U.S. Breastfeeding Committee and other health advocates remain committed to securing this important right for airline crew members.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler