A lactating passenger tries to hold United Airlines accountable

Juggling the needs of a six-month old baby with a busy travel schedule can’t be easy, but Wendin Smith tries. She expects an airline like United, with which she has top-tier elite status, to be her ally. But on a recent flight, the company proved to be more of an adversary.

Regulations and policies are in place to accommodate the needs of lactating women on flights. It’s a topic we’ve covered in the past. But, if the airlines charged with abiding by the regulations, don’t even know the regulations, what’s a mom to do? And ultimately, what should we do with this case?

Smith thought she knew the rules. If you’ve flown the four million lifetime miles needed to reach Global Service status, you have every reason to believe you do. But maybe the rules changed.

Smith flew United from Washington, DC., to Singapore, via Tokyo. During the 14-hour flight to Japan, Smith asked a flight attendant for a scoop of ice to keep the milk she had pumped chilled.

He refused, because ice was “for drinks only.”

Let me see if I understand this. United would have given Smith ice for a cocktail, but not to preserve breast milk? I won’t digress and comment on airline sensitivity training for United’s male flight attendants, but according to Smith, the intervention of a female crewmember persuaded the male employee to part with some ice.

No wonder Smith was distraught after this long flight. And, it got worse for her.

When she departed on United from Singapore, to return to D.C., she was forced to check the milk she had expressed. The milk was frozen and packed with freezer packs, in accordance with TSA regulations.

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Neither the gate agent nor the pilot would allow Smith to board with the milk. They told Smith that TSA regulations required her to check her bag with the milk, and that she had no recourse. Specifically, the pilot stated that TSA regulations did not allow expressed breast milk to be carried aboard, without the child.

Yet, the gate agent and the pilot were clearly uninformed about the TSA regulations, which state that milk is allowed aboard, and that “You do not need to travel with your child to bring breast milk.”

Smith couldn’t maintain control over the expressed milk to ensure that it remained cool. When Smith arrived in San Francisco, 15 hours later, her checked bag with the milk wasn’t at the baggage claim carousel. So, even if the breast milk happened to be frozen after the flight, and safe for her baby’s consumption, the bag wasn’t there. And, she needed to clear customs without the checked bag of expressed milk.

Smith says the female United employees in the baggage claim area were indifferent to her lost bag that contained sustenance for her baby, and directed her to proceed to customs without her missing bag.

I don’t know why the United female employees in baggage claim would be less sensitive to a lost bag containing expressed breast milk than the female United flight attendants who ensured Smith got ice on the outward flight. But, perhaps the baggage claim moms may have been formula moms, not lactating moms, and were unaware of the issues facing a lactating mom. Especially lactating moms that fly long international flights.

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Interestingly and appropriately, Smith had no problem going through the TSA checkpoints in San Francisco with the milk she had expressed while on the flight from Singapore. That would be because TSA regulations allow it.

At the gate for the flight from San Francisco to D.C., Smith finally confirmed that her bag had been located and would be at D.C. when she arrived. But the bag wasn’t there.

The United representative in D.C. was kind, professional and helpful to Smith, but couldn’t conjure up a bag. The representative informed Smith that the San Francisco baggage claim representatives reported that Smith had failed to claim her bag.

Despite Smith’s dilemma as a lactating mother and her hour-long effort to locate her bag with the expressed milk, the San Francisco baggage claim representatives reported false information about the bag. Not only is this shameful behavior from United’s employees, it’s shameful behavior for any human being. This was now 29+ hours into the flight and at this time, the milk for Smith’s baby was likely spoiled.

Ultimately, Smith’s seven days of expressed milk, which to a lactating mother is “pure gold,” was delivered to her home 31 hours after she began her flight. The D.C. agent had, with great kindness and empathy, inserted ice packs into the bag, in an effort to keep the milk cool. That was the epitome of customer service — understanding a particular passenger’s needs and doing what can be done to help. This United D.C. representative’s single act is deserving of the term “customer service.” Every other representative, not at all.

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When Smith returned home, she called United to complain. After being on hold for 27 minutes and being disconnected, she reached a representative. Smith also completed the online customer survey within 24 hours of landing, and reported these incidents. Sadly, but maybe unsurprisingly, after being confronted with this debacle involving basic human functions, United ignored Smith.

Smith was her own advocate and went through the proper channels to notify United about her dreadful experience.

“I want to hold United accountable for abysmal customer service and perpetrating a culture lacking judgment,” she says.

Our advocacy team mulled her case. United’s contract of carriage doesn’t specifically address spoiled breast milk or insensitive crewmembers — but it should. We contacted United on her behalf. United apologized and cut Smith a $200 check to compensate her for her inconvenience.

Did United offer Wendin Smith enough compensation?

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Diane Perera

Diane and her family love to travel, and they do so as much as they can. Having experienced the downside of travel, and having learned so much from Elliott.org, led Diane to become an advocate and to help fight the good fight. Read more of Diane's articles here.

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