Pregnant Pilots: Learning As We Go
- Erika Armstrong
Until recently, those two words rarely appeared next to each other. Only 5-7% of the ATP pilot population can give birth, but that number is growing, which means the industry has a few challenges ahead trying to establish rules and regulations on what to do with pregnant pilots - and the long-term side effects of what the condition produces (yes, children!).
Frontier Airlines Lawsuit
In the first week of December 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Frontier Airlines alleging discrimination against women (not just pilots, but for this article, we're just dealing with pilots) because of breastfeeding and pregnancy. This isn't the first lawsuit in the industry, nor will it be the last. Women pilots everywhere have proven that we can be both a mom and a pilot, but it will require some trial and error on both sides.
Women pilots don't want a hiring manager to look at a resume of a qualified 25-year old woman and get passed over because of the concern for a future adjustment for parenthood.
Whether we want to admit it or not, it's still part of the internal thought process of hiring managers and often the hidden reason why women pilots are hired less often into a Business Aviation flight department. So, let's shine a light on those shadowy thoughts so we can look at it in the daylight and see that there are some shiny areas you'd never seen before.
Let's start by looking at the lawsuit against Frontier. It's an intricate issue, but the general scope of the lawsuit is; "Frontier's failure to account for Plaintiff's needs related to pregnancy and breastfeeding caused them to suffer serous penalties, both at and outside of work, simply because they had children." In order to make progress out of a lawsuit, let's focus on the crux of the issue. The key word here is "needs". It starts by having both sides of the issue understand what a "need" is and then a possible solution to each. Let's just start with the top three.
If you are reading this, then at some point, a woman had to endure everything that came with the creation of you. The first item on our "need" checklist is that we all agree that having children is part of the human experience, if you want it to be. In other words, women have the right to get pregnant if they want to. If men could do it, women would let you.
Solution to #1
As a society, we agree that it's a right to have a child; therefore, the mentality needs to shift to a collaborate effort rather than having either side require painful or monetary demands that diminish both the employer and employee.
It takes a village, so let's demonstrate how both sides can benefit from a proactive pregnancy plan. Right now, we're treating it like a venereal disease that will go away in nine months, but we all know the reality is that parenthood has a lifetime of side effects. Ignoring it won't make it go away. It just festers into lawsuits.
Being a pilot is an extremely unique profession. Aviation, by its very nature, equates to thousands of hours off the earth and all its amenities. Both sides need to understand that the unique environment of a cockpit has some built-in limitations that cannot, and should not, change.
In more exact words, you are trapped in a cockpit/flight deck sitting within inches of another person for hours at a time. You can't have privacy. That includes pumping for breastfeeding. Our culture doesn't realize its own irony. We put bodies on display to sell everything, but we get queasy when it comes to the true reason and purpose for some of our body parts. There are many male pilots who are also fathers who understand. They get the whole baby thing, but others don't. So, we need to be respectful both ways.
A breastfeeding woman pilot needs to be able to pump, 8-10 times every 24 hours. End of conversation.
Solution to #2
Mother Nature is amazing. She allows mothers to create nutrients for their offspring. We can look at it clinically and acknowledge that breast milk is an important choice. Some women choose to use formula, and some choose to breastfeed, either way they have that right.
Breastfeeding requires a germ-free environment and cool storage if you're going to keep the milk. If not, you just need some privacy. Expressed milk can remain at room temp for 6 to 8 hours if in a clean environment. A mom could carry a sterile case with the pump that she can take into the restroom. In the airline world, it takes a special talent to do anything germ free in an airplane bathroom, but business aviation has much higher standards and often a place to store expressed milk.
Electric pumps are best and much faster. Many business aviation restrooms have an outlet, but others don't. Manual pumping takes time. The amount of time it takes varies widely. It might have to be a situation where she would have to pump one at a time with some time in between to not leave the flight deck unattended for too long. And keep in mind that the majority of women stop nursing within six months, so this is a minor moment in a pilot's career.
The physical demands of carrying a child in your womb is unparalleled to anything except strapping a watermelon to the front of you and then learning how to move around. There comes a point where exiting out the cockpit window in an emergency is no longer a possibility and having full yoke authority comes into question.
Each person is different but unlike other women in the workplace, pilots usually begin their maternity leave at least a month before the due date, but on average 8 to 14 weeks before a due date, which means significant lost wages and burden on departments to cover trips.
Have a company leave policy in place, for all variety of reasons!
Just like any health issue, there could be complications and need for early bedrest, but this is no different than anyone being diagnosed with a temporary, debilitating illness. It takes time and flight departments must find a way to keep the operation running. However, if you recognize the information stored in the pilot brain, that talent could be used on the ground in the interim. No, pay would not be the same as a pilot's, but it's a reasonable compromise.
There are a variety of companies that offer short term contract pilot employment to cover for someone pulled off flight duty. If it's Part 135, there are more training costs involved, but it's short term. In the meantime, the best solution is to have open communication since each situation is different. Some women might want more unpaid leave. Others might want to work an office job for a few more months and others might want to get right back into the cockpit as fast as possible.
These are obviously short answers to a complex issue, but before either side gets too frustrated with all the variables, here's an overview of what happened during my pregnancy at an airline which no longer exists (they were bought out by Delta). I was a captain on a B727-200.
- When I was five months pregnant, I informed crew scheduling that I was pregnant and gave them a general due date. They had never had a woman pilot, let alone knew what to do with a pregnant one. Finding a uniform for myself was a part-time job since I had to find something new every few weeks.
- Six weeks away from my due date, I reminded crew scheduling about the due date but was told I needed to complete my assigned trips. I ended up flying a week beyond the date I told them I needed to be done by and they tried to assign more after that, even up to my due date.
- My maternity leave began immediately after I walked off the airplane of my last trip which meant I'd have to be back on duty when my baby was two-months old.
- I had never missed a day of work, so I used my sick and vacation time during the first few weeks of maternity leave which transferred immediately into time off without pay and the requirement for me to call in each week to give them my return to work status.
- We still had pilots on furlough (this was after 9/11 in 2002) so after two months, I asked if I could have more unpaid time off and to pull someone off furlough and put them back on the line. They said absolutely not. Either I return to the line or I was fired. We had plenty of pilots, I just wanted a few months without pay. Since I'm also a dispatcher, I asked if I could dispatch for awhile. They said no. I asked if I could do some instructing for just another month. They said no. I asked if there was anything I could do to extend my unpaid maternity leave and they said no. My daughter was only two months old.
- When I was given my simulator re-currency assignment, I was told I was demoted to First Officer. No explanation. Nothing. Just told that I was now an FO and would now hold an FO line. My punishment for having a child. No recourse.
- When I got to sim training, on the second day, I got a call from crew scheduling saying that I now suddenly had to take a captain's checkride but that I wouldn't be assigned as captain.
- I flew the line as FO with captains junior to me just because I had a baby. I was now earning FO pay too.
- I carried a soft-sided cooler to carry a manual breast pump. Security loved to open it up and touch it all and hold it up for the rest of my crew to see. After each leg, I'd dash into the restroom and pump as fast as possible. This part didn't feel like the joys of motherhood.
It was blatant discrimination and we had a union. They didn't even pretend to help. You might think I was extremely angry about the situation, but the reality is that they were just ignorant and didn't know how to logically problem solve a minor challenge.
Management continuously left me with the feeling that if I put up a fight, I'd ruin it for all the women who were to follow in my footsteps. I wanted to fight for them, but they had to get hired first. I feared that they would turn down the next woman because of this. It's tiring to pound on the glass ceiling while the water fills up in the tank. There are ways through, but it takes strength and clarity. I chose to be happy with what I had so I could begin to clear a path for the next woman. Just being there was the first most important step. The end of every struggle begins with the first step out.
We're now at a point in our aviation society where we can understand that a strong flight department is flexible but cohesive. A loyal employee is the best return on investment and flight departments are learning to figure out how to do that. It's not as hard as we think it will be, it just takes flexibility of both sides of the cockpit door. If you are willing to temporarily adjust to help one of your team members, that person will pay you back exponentially, more than you put in.
There is fusion in kindness - you will get out more energy than you put in. If more energy is spent working to help a flight team member grow our aviation community, rather than find ways to defeat someone for having a child, we'll all soar higher.
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