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Mothering › Baby Articles › The Delta Debacle: A Breastfeeding Mom Met by Armed Police Officers for Refusing to Comply with Stewardess

The Delta Debacle: A Breastfeeding Mom Met by Armed Police Officers for Refusing to Comply with Stewardess

Do this 29-year-old mom and her 8-month-old baby look like a security threat? A flight attendant called Memphis police officers to escort her off the airplane because she was nursing her sleeping baby in a front pack and refused to take him out

Do this mom and her baby look like a security threat? A flight attendant called Memphis police officers to escort her off the airplane because she was nursing her sleeping baby in a front pack and refused to take him out

When Delta Airlines flight #42721 landed in Memphis, Tennessee on September 17th the passengers were asked to remain seated. Two armed Memphis police officers boarded the plane.

They were coming on board to deal with a dangerous security threat.

That threat was Jen Starks, a 29-old mother of two who had been discreetly nursing a fussy baby during the flight. Baby Tyler was on her front in an Ergo Baby carrier.

Starks was seated in the last row of the airplane, next to a male passenger, separated from her husband and 2-year-old daughter Rita Clare, who were four rows ahead.

The flight attendant insisted that Starks take the baby out of her carrier and told her to hold him over her shoulder. The seatbelt sign was turned off.

Knowing that 8-month-old Tyler, who was nursing and sleeping quietly, would scream and fuss if she unstrapped him, Starks initially stalled for time.

To the best of Starks’ memory, the conversation went something like this:

Stewardess: You need to hold him over your shoulder with your hand over his head for the entire flight.

Starks: I’ve never heard that before. I know I have to do that for take-off and landing.

Stewardess: No, you need to do that and you need to do that right now.

Starks: Your cart’s in the way, it’s going to take some arm movement. I need your cart to get out of the way and then I’ll take him out.

On Monday, September 20, Starks wrote a blog post, “Rebel with a Cause,” detailing how she’d been treated on the airplane.

“Her tone of voice was rude,” Starks told me when I interviewed her yesterday by phone. “She didn’t use rude words but her attitude was like, ‘I have the power and you’re going to do what I say. I’m in charge here and you will do everything I say, and don’t even challenge me.’”

About ten minutes later, the stewardess came back. By then, Starks had decided she was not going to wake her baby and unstrap him.

“‘At that point I said, ‘You know, I’ve thought about it. And I’ve decided not to take him out.’ Her eyes got kind of big. I said, ‘He’s safe in here, he’s sleeping, he’s happy. The seatbelt sign’s turned off. I’ve never heard this rule before. I do not want to take him out. I don’t understand why I have to.’”

Was this a safety issue?

The stewardess, who returned to serve Starks a yellow violation card and then called airport security, never said to Starks that the baby would be safer if not in the carrier.

“We do whatever the FAA tells us we have to do. Safety is our number 1 priority,” said Dory Puche, the Delta Customer Service Representative handling Starks’ case.

But Starks doesn’t think this was a safety issue.

“How could it be safer for [my son] to be out of this carrier, and he’s going to be crying and I’m going to be breastfeeding him in front of everyone?” she wondered.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), not the individual airline, dictates safety considerations.

So I called the FAA to ask if there were any requirements that an infant during a non-turbulent flight be taken out of a front pack.

Alison Duquette, spokesperson for the FAA, said no.

The FAA’s written policy about take-off and landing is actually not very clear. It stipulates that belly belts are banned (Duquette said they have been shown to cause abdominal trauma in turbulence) and that children may only be strapped into FAA-approved restraints, but it says nothing specific about front carriers or slings.

According to the FAA, “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) strongly urges you to secure your child in an appropriate restraint based on weight and size. Turbulence can happen with little or no warning. And when it does, the safest place for your child is in a CRS (child restraint system), not in an adult’s lap. Your arms just aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially when turbulence is unexpected.”

I had to read that twice: Your arms aren’t capable of holding your child securely, especially when turbulence is unexpected.

Yet parents with lap babies may not hold them strapped securely into an Ergo Baby carrier, where they have no chance of flying out of their arms and bumping their heads on the airplane ceiling.

This seems both confusing and counterintuitive to me. Perhaps the policy was designed based on specific safety studies? Apparently not. Duquette was not aware of any tests comparing the safety of an infant being held in a parent’s arms versus strapped securely in a front carrier.

If it’s safest for a baby to be strapped into an approved baby restraint, why are babies-in-arms allowed on airplanes?

Duquette explains that five years ago, in 2005, the FAA considered mandating that infants have their own seats.

Ultimately they decided against it.

“Because the public is accustomed to kids under two flying for free, some parents sensitive to cost would choose not to fly and instead drive. We are part of the Department of Transportation (DOT). Because highway deaths are very high, we couldn’t do a rule that would put a child in greater harm than in the air,” Duquette said.

Although it’s not mandatory, Duquette would like to see every child in his own seat.

“Everybody wants children in seats not in laps,” she said. “We’ve done outreach to let parents make an informed decision.”

Delta Apologies

Susan Elliott, Delta Airlines media spokesperson (who was also quick to identify herself as a mom), was eager to talk to me about what happened on the Delta flight.

“We’ve already reached out … to offer an apology and we are investigating the situation,” Elliott said.

Elliott clarified that though Delta feels the responsibility is theirs, the flight was operated by Pinnacle, a regional airline, and the stewardess in question works for them.

But Elliott also said that Delta relies on crew members to make decisions about how best to hold lap children.

“This would be handled on a case by case basis. It depends on how the flight is going. We empower the crews to make that decision,” Elliot said.

Delta policy mirrors the TSA’s. “Infants and children less than 2 years old may travel for free within the U.S. if an adult (12 years or older) holds the infant in arms or places the infant in an FAA-approved child restraint during take-off and landing.”

Should we keep business as usual or is it time to change FAA regulations about travel with lap children?

Should we keep business as usual or is it time to change FAA regulations about travel with lap children?

Baby-friendly Skies

Starks has been using this unfortunate incident to advocate for more family-friendly skies. She recommends that families with children:

1) Be seated together and seated next to other parents with small children.

2) Be allowed to pre-board flights (this privilege was taken away in favor of zone boarding, which is thought to be more efficacious), which would allow a family to get settled in more quickly and comfortably, especially if they are using a car seat.

3) Be allowed to use a safe carrier to wear infants during flight, one that allows for breastfeeding (like the Ergo Baby), can be used during take-off and landing, and available on board.

4) Be given “Comfort Kits,” with activities for small children and a snack.

What kind of experiences have you had traveling with your children? Do you think this was an isolated case of inappropriate bullying by a flight attendant or just one example of how un-family-friendly the skies have become? Is this incident a wake-up call that the FAA needs to clarify its lap child policy?

Watch the local TV coverage of the incident.

Photos courtesy of Jen Starks.

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Tags: baby wearing, breastfeeding, breastfeeding in public, breastfeeding on an airplane, Delta Airlines, Ergo Baby carrier, FAA, flying with children, Jen Starks, lap baby on airplane, Memphis, parents badly treated on airplanes, rules about lap children in flight, Susan Elliott, Tennessee, traveling with babies

Comments (91)

Gotta say, this whole kerfuffle sounds plain silly. The baby was quiet and happy. I can't see how it would have been safer held another way. Very odd. .-= Melanie´s last blog ..My Favorite Marsupial =-.
Well, the airline is empowering the crew to make decisions that are too hard for them to figure out . The stewardess wanted her to hold the baby over her shoulder like she's burping him? She's been trained to serve cocktails and mime safety practices, not figure out crash physics. Clearly the FAA has no logical policy, but it should be obvious from their statement that a child secured in an Ergobaby is less likely to fly around and be injured than one held over her mother's shoulder! But wait! Did you notice that they realized that even flying with neither seat nor restraint was far safer than DRIVING? That is a sobering fact--even for those of us who avoid driving anywhere and are keenly aware that the biggest danger to our children, statistically, is to put them in a car. The take home message here is that you and your kids are safer riding the airline beverage cart up and down the aisle the whole flight, while the crew chase you, screaming, than you are buckling into your own automobile.
A few years ago, another Delta stewardess harassed a nursing mother. I still have a copy of the email I wrote to complain. Shall we assume that Delta is not a family-friendly airline? This is a pattern of behavior. It would seem Delta needs to educate their flight attendants on how to NOT harass mothers, particularly those of content, sleeping, nursing or *non-crying* children. Thanks for posting this -- I will be sure to avoid flying Delta at all costs now.
I actually had a steward bring me the manual and point out the guideline to me. It said something along the lines of "all babies must be out of their carriers" and I said "this isn't a carrier, it's a wrap". To comply I just undid the wrap and held my daughter .. still in the wrap cloth... until the plane took off and put it back on. Just booked my husband's flight to the US... avoided Delta! .-= Heather Cook´s last blog ..I can feel the lifestyle changing =-.
Was that a Delta flight Heather? I asked the spokesperson if she had a copy of Delta's specific regulations and she did not. I'd love to know where and in what manual that was written. Also, since apparently no specific safety tests have actually been performed (except on belly belts, which are completely different from wraps), I would really like to know WHY the airline believes it is best practice to have this rule.
I recently flew Delta from Seattle to Lexington, KY, with my 6 month old (and nursing) son and 7 and 5 year old daughters, and had a great experience with the flight crew. I had my son on my lap the entire time and wasn't given any more attention than any of the other passengers. I believe that this was an isolated incident with a power-tripping flight attendant. My aunt has been a flight attendant with Delta for 35 years, and I'd be curious to get her take on the incident.
How horrific. That airline attendant needs to be tarred and feathered for that kind of behavior. I'm just so completely baffled by the fact that someone would call security on this woman. .-= Stephanie - Wasabimon´s last blog ..Modernist Cuisine – The Upcoming Book and A Tour of the Labs =-.
Thank you for focusing your post on the issue - whether the FAA regulation on lap babies is reasonable. Starks' initial posts appeared to me to portray this as a case of breastfeeding discrimination. I am also surprised a Delta representative was so quick to apologize. Emily Gillette, who now years ago was removed from a Delta plane for refusing to cover the head of her breastfeeding child, has yet to receive her apology. .-= Jake Aryeh Marcus´s last blog ..Lady Gaga Asks Young People to Seek Repeal of “Don’t Ask- Don’t Tell” – Should They Be Taking Lessons in Activism from Her =-.
There are no words for how ridiculous and outrageous this is. I have to say I've had some encounters with rude and ridiculous flight attendants so it seems to be at trend. I don't understand what this flight attendant thought she was doing and I cannot believe she had this mom yanked off the flight. Air travel is like the wild west these days. They take away all of your rights and think they can run roughshod over everyone.
So what did Jen think of the apology? What a sad situation. It seems like airlines are getting less and less friendly these days. .-= Kristen´s last blog ..Getting Kids to Try New Foods at Restaurants =-.
Huh? A baby absolutely cannot be "safer" flung over someone's shoulder. I just don't get this. Sounds like a case of "do what I say" by the flight attendant just for the sake of standing her ground. Crazy. .-= sheryl´s last blog ..How to Turn off Emotional Eating - For Good =-.
I absolutely cannot believe the amount of vitriol I'm reading on a normally courteous board. "Trained to serve coctails and mime safety practices"? The flight attendant should be "tarred and feathered"? The flight attendant has absolutely no say in the airline's policy. She is not empowered to exempt anyone from it and she certainly cannot just say, "This looks like a nice mom who just wants to keep her baby comfortable so I'll let her keep him in his sling." Although I certainly feel for Mrs. Starks' dilemma (Let he among us who hasn't tried to avoid waking a sleeping baby cast the first stone!), she was out of line to argue with the flight attendant, no matter how "rude" her tone of voice. Since the flight attendant did not have the authority to waive Delta's rule, there was no way she could "give in" without possibly getting into hot water with Delta. Mrs. Starks should have complied and then contacted Delta and lodged a complaint with the people who actually have some say about their policies instead of "killing the messenger".
I agree, this is all ridiculous and inflammatory. But, after just getting back from a plane trip --not on Delta -- I can report that flight attendants everywhere seem highly stressed, besieged and surly. Toward all of us, not just toward peacefully nursing mothers and babies. .-= Ruth Pennebaker´s last blog ..A Letter to My Two Favorite Oncologists =-.
Thank you for sharing this Mothering Magazine! I fully support Jen in her decisions and feel her treatment was unjust. Mamas know what is best for their babies, and I don't see how she was in error and in non-compliance. Way to go, Jen!
I have always heard that the rule is that you can't use a sling/front pack/whatever carrier (even a nursing cover that attaches around your neck!) while the seatbelt light is on - meaning during take-off, landing, and turbulence. You are allowed to use them during regular in-flight time though. This flight attendant was the one who didn't know the rules, and was just on a power trip. There is no rule that says lap babies have to be held a certain way or over the shoulder or anything like that. I think she just made that up. And then didn't like it when she was questioned. .-= Alicia @ Lactation Narration´s last blog ..Breastfeeding – More Than Just The Milk =-.
I have experienced Delta attendants being pushy & trying to enforce the removal of our Ergo during take off & landing. I agree that airlines should implement policies for families with small children & nursing babies to be made more comfortable & given cooperation and assistance rather than being met with resistance and in some cases hostility.
seems to me that flight crews across the board are more stressed these days. I agree it's a chance for increased education on how to work with parents of small children, but I'd also add that I've had many good experiences with Delta flight crews. .-= Kerry´s last blog ..music and perspective =-.
thanks for posting this. It's been 3 years since I've flown, but I've always had pleasant experiences flying in the past with my kids hanging out with other kids they'd meet on the plane, nursing, etc. I've always nursed my children during take-off and landings to make the transition more comfortable. I'm a little nervous now for i had planned to do the same thing with our next flight plan. I couldn't imagine not being able to nurse or have her bundled sleeping calmly, close to my body. May have to do a bit of research regarding lap babies before my next flight.
It is surprising how this issue gets our parental protective hackles up--I think we all have struggled while traveling with babies. My wife, during her last trimester, was refused a drink of water during a transatlantic trip by a stewardess who was holding a large bottle of water. But you misunderstood: the stewardess wasn't enforcing a policy because there isn't one specifying this, according to Delta and FAA. She was making her own rule, and enforcing it unreasonably. The issue isn't Delta and their policy, but a stewardess who went way beyond her bounds. She called the police for a 'security' problem (like terrorists) when she had only a 'safety' issue (like seat belts). Local police could take a dangerous person into custody, but have no authority over personal air safety. The stewardess had no idea what she was doing and decided to abuse the system (and the family). So some outrage at her conduct is well-placed.
I have little sympathy for parents/ babies on flights. I wish there was a way to separate the cabins (the way amtrak has it set up) so that people interested in bringing their babies on a projectile flying metal object could nurse, change diapers, handle throw up and coo in privacy. All too often I end up sitting next to the parent that needs to change a diaper during landing, because if they wait five minutes until we hit the ground, their poor baby will have to suffer sitting in a dirty diaper a little longer. This, of course, causes us to have to go back into a holding pattern, because the steward will tell the pilot we are not secured to land. 45 minutes later, the 120 passengers on board are finally on the ground safely and the baby has probably soiled himself again because he was just breastfed in an effort to make them stop crying.
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