Brandy Beck is a pilot and first officer for Frontier Airlines. When she was a new mother, she wanted to ensure that her baby was able to be afforded the health benefits of her breastmilk. But because her airline, like most in the aviation industry, doesn’t offer paid maternity leave or alternative work on the ground for new moms who want to breastfeed, Beck had to return to the cockpit promptly. In order to pump breastmilk, the plane she was co-piloting would first need to reach cruising altitude, then she would request a 20-minute break from the captain to pump in the airplane lavatory. After the captain agreed, she’d then need to seek out the assistance of a flight attendant who would blockade the door to the bathroom with a food service cart to prevent passengers from inadvertently disturbing her. While Beck pumped, the flight attendant would then need to join the captain in the cockpit to ensure, in accordance with airline policy, that two people were in the cockpit at all times. Such is the plight of the woman airline pilot, a rarity, to be sure. “It’s by far not my favorite place to make my child’s next meal,” Beck said of pumping in the airplane bathroom. “But it’s a sacrifice I knew I would have to accept because I came back to work.”
Beck’s story, though unusual, is not entirely unique, which is why four pilots are suing Frontier for the right to alternate work while they pump. Female pilots at other airlines been taking a less litigious approach, lobbying their employers to adopt paid maternity leave. Many other companies have accommodated employees with solutions like lactation rooms. But the flight deck of a jetliner is not your typical workplace and there are obviously safety concerns that more pedestrian jobs needn’t grapple with.
“The airlines have maternity policies that are archaic,” said Kathy McCullough, a retired airline captain who is advocating for women pilots with management of Delta Air Lines. McCullough, 61, flew for Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta in 2008. She had a long career in the air, and was the subject of a 1993 profile in Working Moms magazine. “I am so glad that they’re stepping forward and taking a stand,” McCullough said.