Rachel Merrick Maggs is a working mom whose job keeps her on the road. And though she travels frequently, her decision to breastfeed her baby hasn’t slowed her down.
That is, until American Airlines got involved.
Returning home from a business trip in Washington, D.C., the gate agent stopped Maggs as she approached the gate for an American Airlines flight to Boston with a couple of extra carry-on items. Maggs had her rolling suitcase, her purse, a small cooler containing expressed breast milk, and another small bag, containing a breast pump.
And if you’re as good at math as the American gate agent was, you’ve counted to four.
Since we know breast pumps and expressed milk are permitted on board and do not count toward the passenger’s carry-on allowance, Maggs’ case raises the universally important question of what to do when you know you’re complying with airline policy, but are faced with an airline employee who seems to know better how to handle your situation.
We’ll get to that in a second.
This agent told Maggs that she needed to step aside, while he continued to board the flight. Maggs, who happens to be a lawyer, stopped boarding, but stood her ground. She correctly cited airline policy, which, interestingly enough, classes breast pumps as “assistive devices,” with the likes of CPAP machines and oxygen tanks.
Nevertheless, when the agent stood his ground, Maggs asked to speak with a manager. Her request was flatly refused, until another agent overheard the kerfuffle and got involved. That agent helped Maggs find a manager, who was at an adjacent gate.
Maggs made her way over to the manager, who immediately told Maggs she was correct — her expressed milk and breast pump, which incidentally had been searched by TSA, could board with her, in addition to her purse and carry-on bag.
When Maggs returned to the gate, the agent began arguing with her again, perhaps annoyed that she sought help from a supervisor. Frustrated, Maggs turned to her fellow passengers and said, “Is anyone else seeing this?”
Maggs turned around to see two businessmen behind her. To her dismay, one of them spoke up. “Yeah, I see this. I see you’re holding up the whole boarding process.”
Maggs was speechless. But when she was finally allowed to board, she stopped at the bottom of the jet bridge, where the two businessmen were also stopped in front of her. As she approached, she heard them talking loudly about the “audacity” that Maggs thought she had “more rights than anyone else.”
Mortified, Maggs spoke up: “I’m right behind you,” she told them. “They let me board.”
At that point, the frustration of the situation — of being treated by both flight crew and passengers like someone trying to get away with something — began to bubble over. She made eye contact with a woman — a member of American’s ground crew, taking gate checked luggage underneath the plane — who comforted her for a moment at the bottom of the jet bridge.
Maggs recalls that moment as the one human exchange she had during the whole ordeal.
Maggs took her seat, along with her bags, at the front of the plane, but she was seated right behind one of the businessmen who had mocked her moments earlier. Despite needing to pump — and that being the whole purpose for bringing her breast pump on board — she felt too intimidated, or perhaps exhausted, to bring herself to do so.
It’s not easy to be a working mom. While every day may not be perfect, Maggs has found work-life balance, and has also committed to breastfeeding her baby. From a nutritional and immunological perspective, breastfeeding is widely accepted as the gold standard for infant health.
And while the law has improved in the last decade with regard to rights of breastfeeding mothers in the employment context, it seems corporations like American Airlines may be slower to accept the practice amongst their own customers.
After she returned home, Maggs followed up with a phone call and an email to American Airlines. It responded, in relevant part, to say that it did not violate disability law (CFR 14 Part 382), as Maggs was ultimately allowed to board with her breast pump and cooler.
The representative added: “The manager on duty indicated that the agent working your flight was a new agent and misunderstood our policy in regards to assistive devices being allowed as carry-on items.”
The representative’s email included a conciliatory offer of 5,000 AAdvantage miles for Maggs’ inconvenience.
Maggs, for her part, responded by saying that the miles are not only unwanted, but are insultingly few given the circumstances. She added that the agent’s lack of understanding of the policy regarding assistive devices “seems to be a failure of the sensitivity training and knowledge expected of customer service personnel. If the employee was as new as you state, he should not have been in a customer-facing role until he was ready and understood the policy.”
Maggs further pointed out to American that the mistreatment she received at the hands of other passengers, while out of the control of the airline, was the direct consequence of its own agent’s misunderstanding of airline policy and slowing of the boarding process.
There’s nothing that Maggs could have done to prepare herself for a gate agent who is unaware of airline policy and unafraid to make a scene at the expense of a passenger’s privacy. Finding the manager was a smart move, though in any given situation, there’s no telling whether escalating the concern will make things better or worse. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice but to calmly take the concern to someone higher up.
Whenever you lodge a complaint — at the scene of the incident or to corporate office after the fact — determine first what you hope to achieve and let that goal drive your strategy. Maggs’ first objective was to get home on her intended flight, which she managed to do. Complaining about the circumstances could wait until she was home and had the time to reflect on what had occurred.
Many consumers — and many litigants — who hope to get an apology from the company are more often than not disappointed. A complaint sent to the Department of Transportation alleging violations of any regulation, or a complaint filed in a court of law, are unlikely to yield an apology.
Maggs learned this the hard way, as she told me the defensive email from American Airlines was a “Sorry, not sorry” message. Maggs hoped that the airline would take formal steps to make its employees aware of the policy toward breastfeeding mothers and assistive devices, but change at a big company like American Airlines doesn’t come easily.
Does American Airlines have a problem accommodating nursing moms? Emilie de Ravin, star of the hit TV series “Lost,” seems to think so. Just last week, she called for the firing of an American Airlines gate agent who yanked her breast pump from her arm as she was boarding her flight.
Women like Maggs, or Lauren Modeen or Mariana Hannaman, who have been mistreated by airline employees as they simply went about their travel routines, have taken their stories public in an effort to raise awareness of the rights of nursing moms. In doing so, they help others in similar situations travel confidently and feel comfortable speaking up for themselves in their own journeys.