American Airlines Says Flight Attendants Shouldn’t Tell Nursing Moms To Cover Up, But Vague Policy Results In Confusion

Yesterday, we told you about the semi-apology letter from American Airlines to a nursing mother who said she was treated rudely by a flight attendant while trying to feed her 5-month-old during a recent flight. At the time, we weren’t sure if the “cover it up” sentiment stated in the airline’s response to the mom was company policy or just a rep misstating the policy. Now we have a better idea.

“American Airlines has always allowed mothers to breastfeed during flight,” reads a statement from AA to Consumerist. “The approach our flight attendants take is to ensure breastfeeding mothers have the privacy they wish to have, while also ensuring the comfort of our other passengers. We apologize to the breastfeeding mother who was offered a blanket during a recent flight by a well-intentioned flight attendant. The intent was to make everyone onboard comfortable, including the unrelated 12-year-old sitting in the same row.”

That statement still didn’t quite clarify whether or not the airline wants nursing moms to cover up while breastfeeding. For further clarification, an American employee sent us the following guidelines from the airline’s flight attendant manual:

Customer Discomfort
If a customer’s activity causes discomfort to another customer, F/As should use their best judgment to decide whether the activity is inappropriate. A F/A may be called upon to relocate an offended customer to another seat or discretely inform a customer of airline policy. In instances involving customer discomfort, F/As should use the following guidelines to determine the best course of action…

* Breastfeeding of infants is permitted during all phases of flight, F/As should not place restrictions or requirements on the mother of the infant

So on the one hand you have a rather clear statement that flight attendants shouldn’t be requesting that a nursing mother cover up. On the other hand, the airline tells attendants to “use their best judgment to decide whether the activity is inappropriate.”

Obviously in this case, the attendant determined that a breast bared solely for the purpose of nourishing an infant was inappropriate and then made the decision to move the young woman located two seats away from the apparently offending breast.

According to the mother in the original story, the young girl in the aisle seat never expressed any discomfort or even looked over at the mom while she was nursing. Granted, that is coming from the passenger at the heart of this dispute, but the airline’s statements never refute this, nor does AA ever claim that the 12-year-old asked to be relocated or voiced any awkwardness about being in the same row as a nursing mom.

This appears to be the case of a flight attendant putting her personal bias against public breastfeeding above any actual concern for her passengers. The offer of a blanket and request for the mother to cover up is obviously in violation of the airline’s own policy, and the possibly unwarranted relocation of the 12-year-old passenger only served to draw attention to a mother who claims to have been quietly nursing in her window seat with her husband seated next to her. In the end, this “well-intentioned” attendant’s efforts to “make everyone onboard comfortable” only ended making the family — and possibly the young girl whose seat was changed mid-flight — more uncomfortable.

Even though mothers have been nursing their children since the dawn of man, public breastfeeding does makes some folks uncomfortable. Then again, so do people with bad breath, smelly feet, loud voices, and people who bite their fingernails, cluck their tongues, sigh a lot, and hum to themselves. You’ll find any (and probably all) of these people on a packed plane, but you don’t see flight attendants handing out breath mints, odor eaters, or proactively moving someone to another seat to get away from the mild unpleasantness.

One nursing mom and Consumerist reader explained her side of the debate in an e-mail. “If I’m at a restaurant eating a steak and some vegetarian finds that offensive, would the waiter proactively try to cover my head with a towel while I’m eating so that the vegetarian is more at ease?” she asks. “No, because that would be insane.”