Ridiculed by American Airlines flight crew, passengers for traveling with a breast pump

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Should American Airlines employees undergo sensitivity training to better accommodate nursing moms?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

  • sirwired

    I think AA should educate their employees better, but that means training on the relevant rules and regulations (and general customer-service skills), not nebulous (and unlikely to be effective) “sensitivity training”.

    And yes, the employee should have contacted a supervisor when asked, and taken the answer with a bit more grace. And this person is indeed probably unsuited for a customer-facing role (though maybe she’d fit right in over at Spirit!)

  • Jeff W.

    Ms. Maggs is 100% correct in asserting her rights. She knows the rules and properly asserted them. And AA sort-of apologized to her by giving her 5000 bonus miles.

    But just let me flip this around just for fun. The gate agent was new, according to AA. The gate agent isn’t going to get better by reading manuals. It is experience that counts. And he was probably confused as his inexperience couldn’t reconcile the baggage limit with the medical device exception — especially when the baby was not traveling with mom.

    And let us be honest. No one wants to be called out in public that you made a mistake. In any of our jobs no one wants to have someone request to see your boss to override a decision you made. Right or wrong. That is human nature. Combine that with the fact that a gate agent salary is not that far above the minimum wage — since AA says he was new.

    For the people behind her in line, there is nothing you or AA can do about them.

  • Legume Duprix

    This is no surprise considering it’s AA. My company’s experience with them has been abysmal. AA is the Comcast of the airline business from a customer service perspective. The consistent, persistent lack of professionalism they exercise isn’t limited to a city or an airport.

  • ESL_Teacher_NJ

    Airline employees and TSA agents both need more training to deal with all types of medical devices and, above all, people with disabilities. Often people with disabilities are forced to suffer needless humiliation and embarrassment.

  • Joseph

    We’ve had similar problems traveling with our kids. We had a steward tell us that we couldn’t use our FAA approved car seat for our daughter. The steward made my wife hold our daughter rather than actually sit in the appropriate (and much safer) seat. We complained to the manager on arrival and of course got the same sorry but not sorry.

  • James

    For the people behind her in line, there is nothing you or AA can do about them.

    Yes — don’t expect everyone to be 100% familiar with all the carry-on rules.

    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.”

    You have two businessmen apparently ignorant of the carry-on rules for nursing mothers, who probably rely on the airline’s staff to manage those rules accordingly.

    Who you get as passengers is a lottery.

  • Chris Johnson

    I voted yes, but it’s never going to happen. Maybe a mass email to everyone who works at the airports and on the planes. Given that four airlines control over 80% of the domestic market and the domestic “load factor”, percentage of seats with butts in them is at 85% when historically it was around 2/3, what incentive do they have to make passengers happy and compete for them, at least on the domestic routes?

  • Rebecca

    AA had an agent that was wrong and made a mistake. Not much more they can do than apologize and make sure that person know the rules.

    That being said, I just don’t think “sensitivity training” is the answer. Let’s be honest. The vast majority of people, 90 to 95%, are going to do the right thing and be “sensitive” or whatever you want to call it to someone needing to travel with a breastpump. The other 5 to 10% are always going to be jerks. So you’ve wasted the time of the majority, who don’t need to sit in a pc fluff seminar on company time. And you’ve given ammunition to the few, who are already jerk anyways, because now they have something to complain about and ridicule.

  • Hanope

    How come the supervisor/manager couldn’t accompany Maggs back to her gate to talk with the one gate agent who refused her boarding? All the gate agent saw is the passenger walk away and come back. I doubt that gate agent watched her go over to another person and speak with them, the gate agent was busy boarding other passengers. So I can see why the gate agent would continue to argue with Maggs (and yes, that gate agent failed to understand the policy exceptions).

  • SierraRose 49

    Ditto ESL. My husband has worn an insulin pump since 2001. Almost every time we get to the TSA screening area, even with PreCheck, the agents often request that he go through the Millimeter Wave or Backscatter full body scanners, both of which the manufacturer of his pump, Medtronic, has advised NOT to do because the devices may cause a serious malfunction. He carries a card from Medtronic politely asks to go through metal detector instead and have a pat down. Almost every time we fly, a TSA agent says, “Oh, that won’t hurt your pump.” Yes, it can. They have reluctantly relented the last few times we’ve flown.

  • Ward Chartier

    A very important measure of the effectiveness of an organization is how well it handles non-standard events. In this case, how comprehensive is the American Airlines training for new employees about how to manage exceptions to rules, especially when the exceptions, and their laws, are well documented? I’d argue that the majority of training hours needs to be about how to manage non-standard events.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    It has been my experience that there are several employees that do NOT know the policies of their employer whether it is the TSA, an airline, a grocery store, etc. Some companies do not train thoroughly. Some employees do not care.

    What I do is that I print out the policy from the website and carry the policy with me. I reprint the policy so that I don’t get “that was printed from our website last month, last quarter, last year and we have a new policy” response. It takes some extra work but it reduces the frustrations, eliminates the arguments, etc.

    When our son was younger, we carried the rules about liquids, breast pumps, etc We carry the printout from our son’s car seat manufacturer stating that his car seat is FAA approved since tag has fadedworn off.

    Again, we shouldn’t know more about the policies of a company than the employee but it is better than the alternative.

  • onekathryn

    Rebecca, apparently you were not born, nor have EVER experienced good customer service. It involves keeping thecustomer’s goodwill WHILE solving tge problem because..you value your customer & want to keep her/him. Not hard to do, just involves instilling that mindset in your employees. Accepting this bs as ‘inevitable’ is a reflection of how hopeless you think the chance to change is.


    My mother disconnects her pump, puts it in a plastic bag and hands it over for manual screening. She is without it for about 10-15 minutes and goes through everything quickly. She too has a card from Medtronic and never has had an issue. I expect it one day, but maybe her age (90) makes them be a bit more lenient.

  • Chris_In_NC

    She asserted her rights. She asked for a supervisor and was allowed to board. The gate agent will likely get written up and receive a reprimand. What else does she want? To have the agent fired on the spot? Take the high road. As AA said, its a new agent. If he continues to have complaints, he will be fired.

    It sounds like the real beef she had was with her fellow passengers.

  • Rebecca

    I have received it, yes. My point was more that, after the fact, there isn’t much else they can do. There just isn’t, the window of opportunity has closed there. I didn’t say anything was inevitable. I said the vast majority of people are nice and do the right thing. Those few that don’t, sensitivity training won’t make any nicer. In fact, I think it has the opposite effect. That was the poll question, and that’s what I was addressing.

    I worked and supervised in customer service for a very long time. There are always jerks. On both sides. There just are. You also have people that aren’t normally jerks that have bad days. But one thing I do know, the time to solve a problem is when it happens. Very often, nothing can really make it “right” later. This case is another one of those times. The OP is right. But, there isn’t really much AA can do to fix it at this point. No response they give is going to prevent this article from being written.

  • AAGK

    Are you sure Ms Maggs is a lawyer? She has an unbelievably thin skin. Who cares what 2 dumb passengers think? I’m not sure why she consulted them, if not to stir up drama.
    Obviously the agent was wrong. I’m not sure why the manager didn’t escort her back to the gate so that she didn’t have to interface with the awful agent again. Bad customer service for sure, however the airline likely disciplined the employee and gave her some miles. What more does she want?

  • random_observation_source

    Too bad that this can’t be handled before the gate… if every airline only allows two carry-ons, then that could be enforced at either check-in or at the security. There, if you try to go through with more than two items (and assuming that they were knowledgable of what counts and doesn’t count towards the carry-on count), you can be sent back to check something in (more fees for the airline). If you make it past that point, then you’ve been vetted – gate agents can assume that everything a passenger is carrying is allowed onboard as a carry-on.

  • Altosk

    Reminds me of the TSA agent who hassled the lady over juice a few weeks ago…one person, representing a company or an agency, who doesn’t understand the policy or is confused about it makes someone else’s life difficult. Unfortunately this seems typical of travel these days.

    Honestly, I wouldn’t have appealed to other passengers. That’s where this lady went wrong. I’m not going to jeopardize my spot on that plane for a stranger who’s asking me to take a stand about something. But I WILL gladly give her my contact information quietly if she needed a witness.

  • This is an example of what I call a colonic rule. You encounter front-line personnel who for whatever reason just don’t want to handle your problem, and crushes the passenger by inventing a rule on the spot that can be used as an excuse not to address said problem. It’s always great fun when such types vainly pull this on a lawyer who knows and asserts her rights. Good going, Maggs.

  • Annie M

    It was a HE, not a she:

    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.”

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I hope AA sent an email to all of the gate agents after this, in their hopefully weekly roundup of things to know, so that current gate agents who pay attention will know the policy.

  • FCVA

    Most people check in online or at unmanned kiosks unless they have checked bags. And the TSA doesn’t need to spend even more time enforcing the airlines’ rules. So that wouldn’t work. And in fact, everything she was carrying WAS allowed onboard as a carry-on. The gate agent simply didn’t know the rules and chose to argue instead of simply confirming what the passenger clearly knew was correct.

  • joycexyz

    This is certainly not the only time that self-important agents have asserted their “authority,” and not just about breast pumps. Perhaps we all need to travel with printouts of the relevant regulations.

  • MarieTD

    I have found that as I’m aging, the agents in the security line have become ruder and more strict with me. I’ve often been treated as someone who is probably senile though I am polite and respectful. However, I have never been treated in the USA as badly as I was at Heathrow. I got the nudie-type pat down there, though they didn’t find anything to account for my setting off the alarms.

  • Mike

    If I had overheard those 2 businessmen, they would have gotten an earful from me, and I wouldn’t have cared how they responded.

  • DChamp56

    “There’s nothing that Maggs could have done to prepare herself for a gate agent who is unaware of airline policy”? Really?
    Knowing someday this may happen, how hard would it have been to print off the rules and have a couple sheets of paper in her carry-on just in case?

  • Rebecca

    In a vast majority of cases, it’s just a matter of circumstances. Most people will do the right thing, most of the time. Many companies have found that customer service actually does matter and makes a difference (think Amazon or Southwest). The few that don’t, frankly, I think you get what you pay for. I haven’t set foot in a Walmart since college, almost 15 years ago now. Have to vote with your feet.

  • James

    I don’t think the “ignorant” should be blamed for “mouthing off.” They were explicitly asked.

  • James

    Perhaps escalating a confrontation on the jetway would be the right approach, but I doubt it.

    The original poster sounded like quite the drama queen when she exclaimed “Is anyone else seeing this?” I doubt that was out of the blue for witnesses — the two businessmen would have been waiting for the argument to be resolved — and probably wanting to just stay out of it.

  • Greybeard

    The line to use is, “I cannot go through the surrender machine (OK, don’t say “surrender machine”, just point to it) because my device manufacturer will not allow it, and this is within TSA regulations. If you are not familiar with that part of the regulations, please get a supervisor.” Then smile.

    NOT saying you should *have* to do this, but that should help.

  • jim6555

    “AA is the Comcast of the airline business from a customer service perspective”.

    AA is also moving closer to becoming the equal of Spirit Airlines when it comes to customer service.

  • 100wattlightbulb

    It’s false indignity. If she really cared about being a mother, she would be home WITH her baby.

  • Nancy

    On most international flights I’ve taken, bags ARE approved at check-in and tagged as approved for being in the cabin after being weighed and measured to check they meet the airline’s requirements.

  • cscasi

    Your colorful language certainly helped me better understand you comment.

  • vmacd

    Wait, isn’t this the same company that just released “The World’s Greatest Flyers” video telling us how we can be better passengers? Guess they left out the part about nursing mothers needing to leave their breast pumps at home.

  • AAGK

    What do you mean? Rebecca said the agent was wrong.

  • AAGK

    She probably has it on her smartphone. It also sounds like she was carrying enough stuff and it’s hard to anticipate everything. Your idea is great though. Perhaps she could have an accessible link on her phone in case this happens again.

  • AAGK

    I wondered this too. That supervisor could use some retraining as well.

  • Mike

    Well, it is sort of personal for me, as I carry a CPAP when I travel and have gotten all sorts of looks and overheard snarky comments about it. No airline employees have given me problems tho, thankfully. The TSA on the other hand……

  • rothsteg

    As inappropriate as the initial gate agent’s action was and as despicable as the behavior of the two businessmen quoted was, the headline on the story “ridiculed by American Airlines flight crew” is not substantiated anywhere in the story. There’s no mention of the flight crew at all and the original gate agent, was wrong but, as related in the story, didn’t ridicule her.

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