Airline Pilots Should Not Have to Choose Between Their Jobs and Breastfeeding Their Babies

Shannon Kiedrowski holds her infant son.

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I’m a commercial airline pilot, and I love my job. As a kid, I was obsessed with airplanes.  My parents encouraged my passion for flying, and in spite of the odds — women currently make up only six percent of commercial pilots — I became a pilot.

I spent many years chasing my flying career. In 2002, I got my dream job as a first officer for Frontier Airlines. Along the way, I fell in love, got married, and decided to have a baby. I never questioned whether I could have it all, because I had it all — the dream flying career, as well as a family and a life outside of work. 

But after I had my baby, things got a little tricky.

Frontier Airlines’ maternity policy for pilots allows 120 days of leave, all of it unpaid. Many of us can’t afford to take the full amount of time off because we are also forced to take mandatory unpaid leave at least eight weeks before giving birth. (Most airlines don’t let women fly after 32 weeks of pregnancy, mine included—but they also don’t allow you to seek job-reassignment so you can keep earning a paycheck). Then, when we return to work, Frontier does not make any accommodations for us to be able to pump breastmilk so that we can continue to breastfeed our children, as recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics for the first year of life. This combination of limiting the amount of (unpaid) maternity leave we can take and not making accommodations for us to pump breast milk once we return to work puts new mothers in the heart-wrenching position of having to choose between our jobs and breastfeeding our children.  

This is how my life of pumping at work typically looked: I would arrive at the airport at least a half hour earlier than I normally would in order to pump before the flight. Because there were no lactation rooms at the airport at the time, I would wait for the family restroom to become available.  Once the pumping was done, I’d report for duty. Upon arrival at the destination airport, I’d go to the aircraft lavatory and pump again, while cleaners, flight attendants, and possibly the other pilot bang on the door because I am in there for 15 minutes, sometimes longer.

Pilots sometimes fly two-, three-, four-, or even five-day trips. I was lucky to have enough seniority that I was usually able to arrange my schedule so I could be home to nurse my baby each night. But on those occasions when I did have to do a two- or three-day trip, I would have to request a refrigerator in my hotel room, pump while on the layover, figure out a way to transport all the breast milk I had pumped, and hope that it did not spoil before I got back home. 

Throughout this process, I was left to figure it out on my own. Rather than support me, company management questioned my parenting choices as well as my commitment to my career.  They even questioned why I didn’t switch to formula.

I battled for months to get Frontier’s management to develop a policy to help future new moms, meeting with my union reps and presenting research on other airlines’ practices, but my efforts went nowhere — I think they hoped this would never come up again. Sure enough, in the three years since my child was born, five other new mothers have faced the same difficulties. Some developed mastitis, a painful infection. Others lost their milk supply and could not continue breastfeeding. They too appealed to management for help, but like me, they were left to figure it out on their own because Frontier still has no official policy in place to support nursing moms. For a long time, it wasn’t even clear whether we’d be disciplined if we pumped on the aircraft.

Despite the difficulties, I managed to breastfeed my child until he was 12 months old, an accomplishment that I was immensely proud of. But it wasn’t easy, and I felt a huge sense of relief the day I stopped carrying my breast pump to work. 

This week, three of my colleagues and I, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg, filed sex discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We’re asking for a commonsense set of policy changes that will better meet the needs of pilots who are breastfeeding. These include asking Frontier to provide pilots the option of taking a temporary alternative assignment that would permit us to continue working during pregnancy or breastfeeding; allow nursing mothers additional unpaid parental leave after birth, to remove the worst barriers to breastfeeding;  identify places where a breastfeeding pilot can pump at airports Frontier uses; and allow pilots who are breastfeeding to pump on aircraft if they need to.

If Frontier and other commercial airlines want to attract and maintain the most qualified workforce, they are going to have to take a hard look at whether their policies meet the needs of new parents. We should not have to choose between our jobs and breastfeeding our children. It’s a question of fairness.

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Rich077

Why not make a choice? Women who bear children should take leave as required, and then take some paid time off. It hurts airline morale to see a "pilot" going to the breastfeeding room. In addition, it can be alarming to members of the public. It's common sense. Hope you get some money or other consideration in the lawsuit, though.

Anonymous

If it hurts morale to see a pilot and mother go to a room set aside for relieving her breast milk which nourishes her child, there are much bigger issues than lack of support from her employer. It sounds to me as if there is little to no respect for women pilots period. And I'm not sure you should speak for the public who you think would be alarmed to see a working woman fulfill the duties of both employee and mother. You are living in the dark ages, the golden age of sexism.

Anonymous

"It hurts airline morale to see a "pilot" going to the breastfeeding room"
It hurts my brain to see a person make such an ignorant statement. "Alarming to the public"? Are you kidding me? Breastfeeding is healthy and natural. Every woman who chooses to breastfeed should receive the support she needs to reach her parenting goals.

Still_anymouse

Not at the expense of passenger safety. In addition, equating "equality" for pay is not the same thing as given allowances for breast pumping while flying passengers . . . or at work in general. Every benefit/leeway/allowance given to someone who is breast bumping is placing a burden on every other employee around them in many situations. Allowing 120!! days of paid leave takes pay away from every other employee also. None of these demands are free to the whole work group. Just that one individual.

Sacrifices have to be made, we elected to have one member of the family stay home for the first five years so we could actually parent . . . instead of trying to maintain two demanding jobs that require your full attention for the safety of everyone around.

Do we start allowing women to breast feed during the middle of combat after this?

Kierste Baldwin

Idiot

Anonymous

I am disturbed by this comment on so many fronts. In most other countries, nobody finds breastfeeding alarming and in those same other countries, health outcomes are much better. Breastfeeding reduces risk for numerous diseases, cancers, asthma, obesity and the list goes on. "Hope you get some money"??? If more woman were supported in this country to breastfeed, we'd be saving the country millions of dollars. Please do your research, sir, for you are way off base with your remarks and don't know the science regarding breast milk, a super fluid that contains stem cells and the perfect nutrition for babies.

Andy Skaran

As a former Frontier Pilot I am behind you 100%. You deserve equality in every way. You are professional airline pilots and deserve to be treated like equals and the professionals that you are. It is a shame that some members of your airline management don't understand that.

Kierste Baldwin

Ditto

Anonymous

What do other pilots do at other airlines?
Were you able to use your sick and vacations day's for days off with pay?

Anonymous

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