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Does a breast pump count as a carry-on? There’s no one airline rule.

by Staff

Before heading out for a work trip when her firstborn was 6 months old, Lauren Modeen had another job: preparing to pump milk on the road.

“There were all these steps I had to take to feel even remotely confident,” said Modeen, of Arlington, Va. Storage bottles, ice packs, hotel refrigerator, airline policies, even printouts from the Food and Drug Administration — she checked them all off the list. “I tried to plan for as many different scenarios as possible.”

Then she got to the gate of her Delta flight from Atlanta to Minneapolis and the plan fell apart when the gate agent said passengers needed to start checking their bags. Modeen argued that hers contained medical equipment that she needed during the flight, but despite Delta’s policy that allows a breast pump in addition to a carry-on and personal item, she was not allowed to bring her bag in the cabin.

“I felt like I had no power,” Modeen said.

Her experience illustrates the layers of anxiety pumping parents endure as they travel, backed up by stories of dumped milk, carry-on pump pushback, alleged “breast milk discrimination” and in-flight crackdowns. Lactating travelers who are not able to pump can face more than embarrassment and discomfort: It could result in infection and reduced milk supply.

Adding to the challenge: Not all airline policies are the same, and they can be difficult to find and confusing to decipher. There’s no one rule on pumps; the Transportation Department has no regulations regarding the devices.

“There’s no real consequence for the airlines, and so they just do as they like,” Modeen said.

Soaked and in pain on a four-hour flight

A California woman claimed in a lawsuit filed in federal court last month that Delta Air Lines forced her to endure a “grueling” four-hour flight in June in pain and soaked in breast milk after refusing to let her bring her pump and milk aboard. Erika Geraghty was allegedly told she either had to check or discard a bag that contained her pump and breast milk or a separate bag with milk inside.

The suit calls the situation “a draconian dilemma for any mother: to chose between the vital sustenance for her son or the indispensable instrument for its procurement.”

Geraghty ultimately checked the pump but kept the milk with her. As a result, she suffered from swollen breasts and “emotional trauma,” the suit says, causing “profound humiliation, physical pain, and emotional anguish.” She was “drenched in her own milk gushing from her breasts, which soaked her blouse.” When she finally retrieved the pump, she alleges, it was broken.

“She chose to preserve the milk so when she got home there would be something to feed the baby,” Calvin Love, one of Geraghty’s attorneys, told The Washington Post.

Delta denied the allegations. The airline’s attorney wrote in court documents that Geraghty “failed to exercise reasonable care and diligence to mitigate” the problem. The airline declined to comment Tuesday, but its attorney wrote in response to the suit that “Delta owed no legal duty to protect [Geraghty] from the particular risk of harm.”

All major U.S. airlines say some version of this: Breast pumps are allowed on board without counting toward your carry-on limit. Some, including Frontier and JetBlue, say on their websites that they consider a pump a medical or assistive device. Some airlines include the information in sections about traveling with children, even though someone who needs a pump may frequently not be with their baby.

But experiences like those of Modeen and Geraghty — and many other fliers who post about their own ordeals on social media — show that those policies are only as good as the staff members on duty.

The Transportation Department, which investigates complaints against airlines, does not have any rules regarding flying with breast pumps. The tools are not covered under the Air Carrier Access Act, a 1986 law that requires airlines to let passengers with disabilities bring their assistive devices — items such as walkers, CPAP machines, syringes and crutches — into the cabin without charge.

The lack of federal protection means nursing travelers look to an alphabet soup of government bureaucracy when they prepare to fly. Many groups point out that the Food and Drug Administration regulates breast pumps as medical devices, a designation the group applies for flying purposes.

The Transportation Department said passengers should contact their airline to “learn more about whether breast pumps will or will not count towards a carry-on baggage limit.” The agency is not pursuing any rules or guidance to protect the rights of breastfeeding parents but noted that many airlines have policies allowing pumps in addition to a carry-on bag and a personal item.

“Failing to adhere to promises made to consumers, including promises to allow the carriage of a breast pump in the cabin, could be an unfair or deceptive practice,” the department said. “DOT has the authority to investigate and take enforcement action against airlines that engage in an unfair or deceptive practice.”

On the airport security level, the Transportation Security Administration allows formula, breast milk and ice packs beyond the 3.4-ounce liquid limit and says breast pumps can be checked or carried on.

“It is up to the airline as to whether they count toward the number of carry-on items that can be brought into the cabin of a plane,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email.

Still, that has created confusion. In 2022, a mother said a TSA agent said her ice packs were in violation of the liquids rule, which forced her to check pumping supplies. The agency apologized and said it would work to improve its process.

How nursing parents can prepare

Advocates warn that pumping parents need to arrive at the airport armed with information and ready to argue their rights.

Sascha Mayer, co-founder and chief experience officer of Mamava, which designs lactation spaces, said in an email that travelers should call their airline to clarify guidelines and ask an agent to send in writing exactly what is allowed. She said having TSA and airline information handy could also be helpful in case of a problem at the airport.

“While a parent shouldn’t have to create a dossier of evidence to back the rights that enable them to bring breast milk home to their baby, doing so may save the day — and hopefully educate a few people along the way,” Mayer said.

Jessica Madden, a pediatrician and neonatologist and international-board-certified lactation consultant, said a breastfeeding parent who is separated from their baby needs to pump roughly every three hours. If a nursing mom is not able to do that, she could suffer from engorged breasts, clogged milk ducts and mastitis, an infection, as well as lower milk supply.

“We run into ramifications for the health of both her and her baby,” said Madden, medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps, which helps parents get pumps through insurance. She recommends that parents bring a small manual pump when flying in case of a problem with a larger electric pump or familiarize themselves with hand expression in case of an emergency — both precautions that would need to be taken in advance.

“If you’re stressed on an airplane and you’ve never hand-expressed before, it would be an absolutely horrible time to do it,” she said.

There have been efforts to better protect nursing travelers in recent years — nearly 40 years after the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act. When the law was passed, electric breast pumps were still largely used in hospitals and portable electric devices were still years away, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Congress passed the ​Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening Act in 2016, which also required training for TSA security personnel but does not mention required training for airline staff members.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is sponsoring an amendment on TSA handling of breast milk, has fought for clearer implementation of liquids exemption rules, better training of TSA agents and access to appropriate places to pump for nursing parents.

“It is unacceptable when moms are forced to throw away their breastmilk or are denied access to their breastfeeding equipment while they’re trying to fly,” she said in a statement. “I’ll keep doing everything I can to fix these problems because no parent should worry about how they will feed their babies.”

Other provisions, signed into law in 2018 and 2020, requires non-bathroom space for nursing or pumping to be provided in airport terminals.

“These laws were passed in response to a slew of reports from breastfeeding travelers about challenges pumping or nursing in airports, with many mothers reporting pumping or nursing on bathroom floors, as well as significant struggles going through security with pumping supplies, like breast pumps, storage containers, and ice packs,” Cheryl Lebedevitch, national policy director for the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, said in an email.

After Modeen’s experience with Delta in 2015, which she complained about on Twitter, she said she got a phone call and apology from the airline and an upgraded seat for her ride home. She spent that flight in first class creating a Facebook group, Boobs on Board, to share stories from other breastfeeding women who had nightmare experiences while traveling.

While she no longer updates the page — her kids are 7 and 10 now — Modeen said she has received messages for years from other women who had similar experiences.

“Depending on who you get and depending on what they know and how they’ve been trained, it could be anything,” she said. “Because there’s no black and white; it’s not like [how] smoking on airplanes is not allowed. It’s not a clear policy like that; it’s pretty much up to interpretation. … It’s so anxiety-provoking.”

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