Is it time for airlines to take a stand on breast-feeding?

When Martin Madrid got his seat assignments on a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to Orlando, he spotted a problem: Even though the airline knew that he and his wife were flying with a 4-year-old and an infant — you have to tell the airline your birth date when you book tickets — the couple had been assigned seats a few rows apart.

Splitting up his family wouldn’t normally be a problem, said Madrid, an account manager for a health products company in Minneapolis, except that his wife, who was still nursing the baby, needed a little help. Couldn’t Delta just seat them together? “This is so irritating,” he said.

Madrid could, of course, pay extra for premium seats — but isn’t Delta required to make a special allowance for nursing moms?

No. Airlines have traditionally had a tumultuous relationship with nursing mothers. Emily Gillette, a passenger kicked off a Delta commuter flight in 2006 for refusing to cover herself with a blanket as she breast-fed her daughter, is a poster child for that conflict.

Gillette quietly settled a lawsuit against the carrier this year. But the subject of how airlines treat — or in some cases mistreat — nursing women comes up with some regularity.

Many of the passengers who contact me are so embarrassed by their run-ins with crew members that they don’t want their names published. One recently e-mailed me on behalf of his wife, who was traveling on American Airlines for business. She had left her 4-month-old son at home with her husband, but during the flight she visited the restroom to use a breast pump.

After a few minutes, a flight attendant made an announcement, “asking customers in the restroom to return to their seats, as other passengers also needed to use the restroom,” her husband said. “I was appalled at the lack of professionalism and common sense of the in-flight crew.”

I asked American Airlines about the incident, and a representative told me that the airline regrets what happened. “Our in-flight procedures advise our crew to ensure that breast-feeding mothers have the privacy they need and that other customers are not subjected to an uncomfortable situation,” a spokeswoman said. “Our in-flight personnel are trained to handle such situations with professionalism and discretion.”

American apologized and sent the passenger a $100 flight voucher.

The awkwardness with which airlines treat breast-feeding moms reflects the overall discomfort that many Americans feel toward nursing in public. Last winter, the retail chain Target became the target of “nurse-ins” by angry mothers who were upset after a Houston-area woman was reportedly asked to stop breast-feeding her child at a local store. The protesters wanted Target to know that nursing isn’t “exhibitionism.”

Yet many of the travelers I speak with regard breast-feeding as a private act that, if performed in public, should be done discreetly, especially in the confines of a commercial flight. That attitude irks some breast-feeding advocates, who argue that nursing ought to be allowed anywhere, with no restrictions.

Before I continue, a little disclosure: If you can’t tell from the byline, I’m a man. Obviously, I have no direct personal experience with breast-feeding. But my partner nursed all three of our children for as long as possible, including on a plane. She always protected her privacy with a blanket out of consideration for her fellow passengers, a decision I supported.

Given that nursing is such a hot topic, you’d think that the airline industry would have firm policies in place to deal with the conflicts that ensue. It doesn’t.

I contacted all the major airlines and asked about their nursing rules. I specifically asked whether they had any formal or informal policies, and how they train attendants to deal with a nursing mom. The answers surprised me.

Two airlines offered a brief response. Delta “supports a mother’s right to breast-feed,” according to a spokeswoman. A United Airlines spokesman told me, “I’m not able to find any such policy.”

Those statements suggest that the No. 1 and No. 2 airlines in the United States leave it up to their flight attendants to decide what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to nursing on planes.

Ditto for US Airways. “There is no formal or informal policy regarding breast-feeding,” spokesman John McDonald told me. But crew members know what they ought to do, he was quick to add. “Obviously, the flight attendants would assist the passenger with their needs, be it to help them to the lavatory for privacy, [offer] a blanket if requested, or some ice to cool bottles of milk if they pump before travel,” he said.

Southwest Airlines has no formal rule on breast-feeding, either. But spokeswoman Linda Rutherford offered some advice to new moms. “We just ask that nursing mothers use good judgment and exercise discretion in deference to other customers who depend on us to provide a comfortable travel experience,” she said. The airline suggests that “mothers who plan on breast-feeding onboard the aircraft carry a small blanket or jacket to protect their privacy, since we currently do not stock our aircraft with blankets.”

The only major airline with a formal breast-feeding policy is American. It places no restrictions on mothers traveling with infants and allows breast-feeding during all phases of flight, according to a company representative. “In addition, American’s experienced flight attendants may assist parents by heating baby bottles using onboard kitchen equipment, as well as offer suggestions on how to keep kids entertained in flight,” spokeswoman Taylor Hall said. “Parents traveling with children are allowed to bring an extra carry-on diaper bag, as well as car seats and strollers that can either be carried on the plane or checked for free prior to security.”

At best, these policies (or lack of them) allow flight attendants the flexibility to handle any breast-feeding passenger at their discretion. But at worst, they show that the airline industry hasn’t given the issue much thought.

As for Madrid, he phoned Delta a few days before his flight and explained his family’s situation to a representative. “It took her 30 minutes, but they got us seated together,” he said.

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