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No Good Excuse for Airlines’ Archaic Maternity Policies

The New York Times has a question for you: How to accommodate commercial airline pilots who are balancing new motherhood?

I’m thrilled with this – hopeful that the outdated maternity policies crews struggle under are finally attracting some attention. However, I have something to add. It’s me waving my hand and going, “Hellooooo! Flight attendant over here, under pretty much identical circumstances!”

That is not to draw away from the female pilots who are possibly making progress. I’m rooting for them 100% and proud of them for forcing some attention onto the issue. I’m incredulous at how the NYT stresses the excuse that maternity policies lag because females are still a small minority – only 4% of the nations’ certified airline pilots. Flight attendants are 70% female, and that’s down from decades past. What’s the excuse, then?

Pilots have the leverage of cockpit concerns when breast pumping removes them to a lavatory for 20 minutes a session. The FAA would obviously prefer for one to accomplish this in the cockpit, but the distraction and discomfort caused were illustrated by the story of the pilot who demonstrated her pump at a union meeting. This was further confirmed by pilot and best-selling author Karlene Petitt, who joked, “Maybe we should desensitize [male pilots] by creating breast pumping videos!”

In truth, the challenges of pumping at work spill beyond the cockpit for flight and cabin crews alike. Aside from the work quandaries of when and where, how is tricky, too. New mothers reported it necessary to drag two pumps around – one electric (to accomplish it more quickly on-the-clock), plus a manual one for when the batteries die on the first or there is no electric socket. After all that, one either dumps the milk or carries it in insulated totes on dry ice or freezer packs.

All that effort may not even pay off. Leslie B., who works for a major carrier, says the traveling took a toll on her supply. “I had to supplement with formula because I couldn’t yield the amount needed while at work … If the milk didn’t stay cold enough I [had to dump it anyway] … it was a disaster!”

Pre-birth policies are equally impractical. It starts with how confused the company can seem about pregnancy in general. At my airline, we have our own Facebook page just to share and confirm policy because they act like pregnancy is something they’ve never dealt with before. Like we have some crazy illness they never thought they’d face. Incorrect information from those who should know better is rampant.

However, the biggest struggle for a pregnant pilot or flight attendant is to reconcile the need to pay bills with having one of the world’s most unhealthy and dangerous jobs. From fume events to inadequate sleep, the EU officially recognizes the plethora of risks, which is why crewmembers there (and in most countries) are grounded by 26 weeks pregnant if not immediately, and offered a combination of paid leave and temporary ground jobs. Policy details in the U.S. can vary*, but no airlines do all options and many do none.

In fact, we’ve taken steps backward. It used to be we were grounded, without pay of course, but were eligible for ground jobs. Lately, many airlines have retreated from offering these “light duties” for no discernable reason. Instead, they’re “compensating” with a policy of allowing us to work on the plane however long we “want.” We can literally fly ‘til we drop the baby.

This is how you end up with absurd stories like that of Rita A., a flight attendant who was commuting to work on her own airline and denied a seat in the exit row … because she was pregnant. So she can be in charge of evacuating an airplane, but it is not safe for her to occupy an exit row seat? Then there’s my airline policy requiring a doctor’s note for passengers beyond 28 weeks pregnant and prohibiting travel beyond 36. Crew members, though? No such cautions.

You might say some of this is due to a few who have fought for “the right to work” pregnant. If one is truly keen, I suppose choice is a good thing. However, this seems like a victory misused. What most female crews really want is to be permitted to earn an income, not specifically to work in the air amongst all the hazards until conditions defeat us.

Yes, the U.S. has a loophole where we can sometimes claim unemployment or disability, but these fractionally-paying, short-term “solutions” aren’t meant to be used this way. As such, many colleagues find themselves denied both.

But there’s more! For whatever part of your pregnancy or post-birth you can otherwise afford to take off, most airlines withdraw medical after 6-8 weeks and force us onto COBRA. At my airline, your bill just for coverage is multiplied by five. No wonder some crews found it necessary to fight for the right to keep working, even on the plane.

The only policy which acknowledges the unique circumstances of our industry is “baby bonding time” – post-birth time allowed at home. This is unpaid of course, yet still has been cut recently at many airlines. Mine has gone from one year to six months. It sounds generous to some, but many cannot afford to take it anyway. Given (1) the practical struggles of new motherhood with our constant travel and (2) that airlines are not paying us a dime during this time, not even on medical, I don’t see why they cannot offer more time if needed. There seems no better example of, “They could, they just don’t want to.”

With all the feats airlines accomplish every day, surely this can’t be the thing that stumps them. No one solution is a cure-all, but are they even trying? Paid leave, extended bonding time, ground duty and maintaining medical coverage are all things the airlines could offer to help their new crew families. Some of these don’t even cost a thing. Why don’t we start there?

I leave here to go on maternity myself with one message for airlines: It’s true that no single solution can resolve all the unique challenges of crew jobs, but you can do better.

* Policies will vary from airline to airline. I can most specifically speak to the combination I work under.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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