Female pilots and airlines such as Delta and Frontier struggle over maternity policies.
Boarding a flight can feel like stepping into a time capsule — men typically fly the plane, while most flight attendants are still women. Which is why a female pilot from Delta Air Lines did something dramatic at a union meeting recently.
Standing before her male colleagues, the captain unbuttoned her uniform, strapped a breast pump over the white undershirt she wore underneath, and began to demonstrate the apparatus. As the machine made its typical “chug, chug, chug” noise, attendees squirmed in their seats, looked at their feet and shuffled papers.
It was the latest episode in what has proved to be a difficult workplace issue to solve: how to accommodate commercial-airline pilots who are balancing new motherhood.
It is a question that some employers have answered by creating leave policies or lactation rooms. But the flight deck of a jumbo jet isn’t a typical workplace. Pilots are exempt from a provision in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to accommodate new mothers. At 30,000 feet, the issue touches not only on pilot privacy, but also aircraft safety.
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At Delta, some female pilots have banded together through a private Facebook page and have approached their union with formal proposals for paid maternity leave — unheard-of at the major airlines — because they say they would like to stay home to breast-feed their babies. At Frontier Airlines, four female pilots are suing the company for discrimination, seeking the option of temporary assignments on the ground while pregnant or nursing.
While their proposals differ, all say they aim for one thing: to avoid situations in which pilots have been leaving the cockpit in midflight for as long as 20 minutes, the amount of time often required to pump breast milk.
“The airlines have maternity policies that are archaic,” said Kathy McCullough, 61, a retired captain for Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta in 2008, who has advocated on behalf of the pilots to Delta management. “I am so glad that they’re stepping forward and taking a stand.”
One reason for the lack of rules is that women make up only about 4 percent of the nation’s 159,000 certified airline pilots — a number that has been slow to rise over the past decade or so.
There were no female pilots at the biggest airlines until 1973, when American Airlines hired the first, Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo. In a reminder of how times have changed, that news was reported in The Los Angeles Times under the headline, “Airline Pilot to Fly by Seat of Panties.”
“Airline jobs were really reserved for men,” said Caputo, 67, who became something of a minor celebrity when American hired her. She has been retired from the airline for about 18 years. “When we started, there were no maternity leaves, because there were no female pilots.”
More than 40 years later, the major carriers still haven’t resolved this issue. They set their policies for pilots based on the collective-bargaining agreements negotiated by the unions. But women of childbearing age account for just a sliver of union membership, so maternity leave and breast-feeding policies have not been at the top of union agendas.
Plus, some members oppose the proposals, citing the costs. One local union leader told several women in an email: “Having a child is a personal choice and asking the rest of us to fund your choice will be a difficult sell to the pilot group.” The leader declined to be interviewed for this article; the union said he was not an authorized spokesman.
Delta’s female pilots still hope to win over a majority of their colleagues. They argue that without paid leave, they’re faced with a choice to either stay home to breast-feed their babies or earn income for their families.
Female pilots can begin to lose wages months before a baby is born. Most contracts at major airlines force pregnant pilots to stop flying eight to 14 weeks before a baby’s due date.
After the push by Delta’s pilots this summer, the airline changed its policy this month. Delta now allows them to fly, with their doctor’s approval, until the end of pregnancy if they so choose.
Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, pointed out that once they stop flying, women can use accrued sick days or apply for disability benefits to partially cover their lost wages. Otherwise, the leave is unpaid.
Once a baby is born, the major airlines typically don’t offer paid maternity leave or alternative ground assignments for breast-feeding mothers. Some carriers, including United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, do offer female pilots up to one year of unpaid leave. Until recently, Delta did not offer such a policy, but the airline has added one year of unpaid leave to the pilot contract.
The Delta female pilots are seeking a leave policy that would let mothers stay home for six months with pay to breast-feed newborns, and up to two years of unpaid leave.
Pilots can earn a base salary of $200,000 and more in later years. But young pilots often start at low wages as flight instructors, crop dusters, or flying charter or tourism flights, and don’t reach the major carriers until their early 30s, a time when they may be planning families. As a result, one Delta pilot said, it is not uncommon for several women in a class of new pilots to be pregnant after a standard yearlong period of probation flying.
Ten female Delta pilots agreed to speak to The New York Times on the condition of anonymity, for fear of alienating their employer or the male union members they hope will take up their cause.
The union, through a spokeswoman, Kelly Regus, declined to comment on “the substance of internal union discussions.” Durrant, the Delta spokesman, noted that the airline had updated some of its policies, and he said it would continue to examine its maternity and paternity leave programs.
“Balancing the demands of a career and raising a family present challenges for all working parents, but we recognize there are unique challenges presented for our female pilots as their children are born,” Durrant said in an emailed statement.