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What happens when female pilots get pregnant?

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

Shannon Kiedrowski

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.

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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.

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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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Apr 2016

India reevaluates why it’s keeping pregnant pilots grounded

By Neelam Mathews →

Lean Into Aviation (3)

NEW DELHI: A few years ago a passenger on an Indian budget carrier caused an uproar on learning that the captain was a woman. “I don’t want to die. She can’t take care of the house, how will she take care of a plane?” he reportedly yelled. Rightfully, he was deplaned. While his knuckle-dragging tribe may have decreased trivially since then, one wonders what the passenger’s reaction would have been if he knew the captain was pregnant. One would assume he would have been scandalized that she had deigned to fly.

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While Qatar Airways last year changed its draconian restrictions on cabin crew concerning marriage and pregnancy, in India the discussion is focused on when the pilot should stop flying when pregnant. Nivedita Bhasin, the third woman pilot to join then government-owned Indian Airlines, now part of Air India, has two children, both pilots. In the last 30 years, she said, the pilot maternity situation in India has remained status quo. “The day a doctor informs you of your pregnancy, you cannot fly. India needs to update its rules in line with global practices. It is accepted worldwide [that] the second trimester is safe, but not in India.”

This was confirmed by SpiceJet general manager Ajay Jasra who told RGN that pilots are taken off all flight duties the moment the pregnancy is reported. “They are then shifted to a suitable ground job, if available, with full pay excluding flying allowance, performance incentives and mobile/Internet allowance)…..They can continue in the ground job until they decide to proceed on ‘Maternity Leave’ of 12 weeks.” In case of miscarriage or medical termination of pregnancy, the crew is entitled to take leave for six weeks.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, the topic of ‘pregnancy and pilots’ dominated an interactive dialog held for the first time by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, Ms M Sathiyavathy, who is the first woman to lead the regulatory body. The discussion revealed the need to clear up ambiguities on rules for pilots and pregnancy in India. Sathiavathy said the issue would be pursued “following discussions with the medical fraternity” on the effects of flying on the fetus and that a guideline would be brought into sync with ICAO. “In the past I have raised this issue on why we are keeping pregnant pilots on ground…” she added.

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ICAO class 1 medical standards concerning pregnancy say once pregnancy is confirmed, the pilot should report it to the medical examiner. The policy states:

If declared fit, i.e. if her pregnancy is considered a normal, uncomplicated and low-risk pregnancy and medical information from her obstetrician, family physician and/or midwife supports this, she may continue to exercise the privileges of her licence from the end of the 12th week until the end of the 26th week of the gestational period. Close medical supervision must be established for the part of the pregnancy where the pilot continues flying, and all abnormalities should be reported to the medical examiner. Provided the puerperium is uncomplicated and full recovery takes place, she should be able to resume aviation duties four to six weeks after confinement.

As RGN learned at the DGCA meeting, there is still plenty of debate on the issue – with some firmly in the ‘take leave’ camp and others seeing no problem with flying during a healthy pregnancy.

But times are certainly changing, and countries around the world are looking to change outdated regulations. To wit, in December 2013, the Israeli Air Force altered its policy and announced that women would no longer be grounded during the second trimester. As reported by YNetNews at the time, flying during the 15th to 25th week of the pregnancy is allowed for transport flights that are up to four hours long, under 8,000 feet, and accompanied by another pilot.

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