Do you travel with medical equipment? When you travel with medical equipment, it is your responsibility to make sure your equipment stays with your person and not in a checked bag. It's your health! And there are rules in place to help those of us with medical devices bring them with us on the plane. But what about breast pumps? I'd consider a breast pump a medical device but surprisingly the TSA does not list breast pumps under medical devices. There are special exceptions that allow people with medical devices to bring them as a third carry-on and to insist that the device stays on their person during a flight. Breast pumps are allowed on flights but don't have the same protections. So when I read this story on Facebook about a mom who allowed her breast pump to be taken by airline staff who checked the bag (along with her wallet and food), at first I wanted to place equal blame on the mom and the airline. But after doing some research, it looks like she might not have had the same rights as someone with prescribed medical equipment. Traveling with breast pumps actually isn't the same as traveling with medical equipment.
I screenshot and pasted the post here so you can see it just in case it gets removed.
Dear United Airlines,Hi. I'm that mom traveling alone with an infant at Christmas time to go visit family and celebrate…
Posted by Elisabeth Keturah Anderson-Sierra on Monday, December 21, 2015
Breast pumps are not considered medical equipment according to the TSA website
I sure would have considered a breast pump a necessary piece of medical equipment. Without it, the baby might not be able to be fed because not every mom can actually breastfeed. Latching problems, inverted nipples, and so on can contribute to an inability to breastfeed but also, once a baby has been on the bottle so long, they might not even want to or know how to latch on. This mom says her baby is turning 1 year old on Christmas – she is obviously too old to be switching from bottle to breast on a whim.
Breast pumps are allowed on planes and through the TSA checkpoint. But they are not treated as medical devices and do not fall under the same protections as medical devices. I have a CPAP machine in its own bag that I can bring on the plane in addition to my carry-on and my personal bag. I usually have my CPAP bag, my laptop bag, and my purse when I fly due to carry-on exceptions for medical devices by the TSA and airlines. From everything I've read, breast pumps are not exempt -they can be carried as a third bag on some airlines but they are not PROTECTED, like a medical device is.
Also, a certain amount of breastmilk is allowed through TSA screening and any milk in excess may require additional screening or may be tossed out, at the discretion of the TSA. Moms can only pre-pump 3.4 ounces of breastmilk to bring with them guaranteed; any excess might not make it on the flight. It is imperative that traveling moms make sure they bring a breast pump. Even if the mom in this case had pre-pumped all the milk for the trip, there is no guarantee that the milk would have it made through the TSA security check and onto the plane.
United Airlines handled this situation poorly
On the United Airlines website, breast pumps and diaper bags are allowed as carry-ons. The mom was totally within United Airlines' carry-on baggage guidelines to expect to bring her pump and diaper bag on the plane. Breast pumps and diaper bags are actually allowed as THIRD carry-ons on United flights, in addition to a personal bag and carry-on:
If I were a mom researching my ability to bring the breast pump in addition to my other carry-on bags, I'd read this page on the website and think I was totally covered. I wouldn't think that I would NOT be okay when I got to the gate.
One thing that is not clear is if the mom bought a seat on the plane for her baby or not. If she did, then she could have brought both bags and stowed one under each seat. Or if the suitcase was too big, the airline could have offered her a plastic bag to put her pump and wallet into so she could stow it under the seat. There are so many other ways this could have been handled at the gate. I feel like the mom threw her hands up, quite possibly because the airline staff was being overly pushy and unsympathetic. None of us were there to witness this. We can only hope that there is some video surveillance that United will watch to see what their staff actually did.
The airline showed a lack of compassion, understanding, and customer service in all areas of this interaction. I'm glad I usually fly Southwest, where the staff is not only polite but entertaining. Oh, and their checked bag policy results in the overhead bins being pretty empty and roomy!
What could have been done differently
There are so many wrongs in this case on all sides. Here's what I think could have happened to avoid this incident:
The mom might have:
- asked to pre-board, despite her saying there was no pre-board available. I pre-board EVERY flight due to my knee issues, including on United Airlines flights. You never know if you don't ask. And ask POLITELY.
- boarded with her group. Boarding with her group, she might have been able to place her bags in the overhead bin because she would have boarded before the bins were full.
- removed her wallet and the breast pump from the baggage, stuffing it in her baby carrier or pockets or wherever she needed to put it to make sure the baby would be fed and she wouldn't be stranded. She got diapers and bottles out and put them into the diaper bag – it seems she was not thinking straight.
- been more forward thinking – travelers during the holidays over pack to bring gifts with them. Overhead bins on airlines like United, who charge for ALL checked bags, typically have overfull overhead bins, regularly asking the final boarding passengers to check their bags at the gate. She says she traveled with United before so she should have known they'd ask for the bag to be checked, and even more so during the holiday rush.
- had a backup hand breast pump. One of the commenters on the Facebook post suggested this – these are compact and could have easily been shoved in a pocket in a jacket or diaper bag.
- insisted that her bag stay with her and that the airline ask someone else to give up their bag for bag check.
- taken a deep breath to calm down and approach the situation more logically. It sounds like she got flustered.
The airline could have:
- asked other passengers to please check a bag to allow room for the breast pump on the plane
- after the flight landed, had a supervisor retrieve the bag from bag check or find some work around to get the bag after it had been checked
- been more helpful – offered her more vouchers, offered her access to a lounge to breastfeed in. The airport in Newark has lounges, I am sure of it.
- been less pushy. It's hard enough to travel during the holidays. Traveling alone with an infant is really difficult.
- kept her bag in the same place they keep strollers and wheelchairs, which is what they promised to the mom, and then given it back to her when she landed in Newark. They either were being negligent or being jerks when they checked the bag in regular bag check.
Advice for traveling with medical equipment after over 25 flights with my CPAP machine
Traveling with a medical device can be stressful and difficult, especially if it is your first time flying with your medical equipment. After over 25 flights with my CPAP machine, I've learned alot about my rights, how to make sure I have the best travel experience possible, and how to deal with the TSA and airline staff who are ignorant about what medical equipment bags look like.
Even this summer, the last time I flew, I was questioned rudely by TSA and airline staff about my “third carry-on”. Not only are they rude, they are accusatory and ignorant. My CPAP bag says “RES MED” in huge letters on the side. “MED”. Hello?! I am surprised by how little TSA and airline staff are informed about their own policies. I clearly tell them this is my CPAP machine, a medical device, that I am allowed to bring and must have with me in order to breathe. I only need it to sleep, but without it, I would be at severe risk of heart attack if I tried to sleep without it. I have been asked many many times to check it at the gate, to check it at the TSA, and so on by ignorant staff at the airport. And every time, I politely but firmly refuse. This is MY health and I am the only one who is responsible for it.
Before I ever took a flight with my CPAP, I did my research. I looked at the TSA site and the airline sites to see what their policies were regarding my specific medical equipment. I talked to other business travelers I know who have a CPAP. How did they manage to bring their laptop, a personal bag, and the CPAP on the plane? I learned to never check my CPAP. NEVER. That if I checked it, I'd be guaranteeing that it would be lost and my trip would be screwed up because I would not be able to sleep. I also learned to condense my stuff as much as possible to reduce the risk of needing to check a bag at the gate.
I have a small carry-on suitcase my CPAP fits in and I can put other stuff in there, like a change of clothes. I have everything bagged inside of that suitcase so that if I do have to check it, I can easily pop it open, pull out my CPAP, and check the larger bag. Sometimes I forego my purse, putting that in my checked baggage, and I put all my essentials (money, wallet, etc) in my laptop bag or the outside pocket of my CPAP bag. Anything to lessen the chances of having to check that CPAP or be stranded without essentials.
The final thing is to just be extremely nice and calm. Which is a struggle when traveling. I get it. But if I calmly explain the problem, usually the airline staff is happy to help me find another solution. “No, ma'am I cannot check this bag because it is my medical equipment. Is it possible to please ask someone else to check their bag because I have to have this equipment.” I usually pre-board because of my knees, which helps me avoid this awkward situation.
At the end of the day, the mom put her trust in the airline to take care of her and her baby. They failed. She gave up her responsibility in allowing the airline staff to take not only her breast pump but her money and her food, out of her sight. Whether you have medical equipment, breast pumps, or valuables (wallet, jewelry), when you entrust it to an airline to take care of it, you are giving it to someone who, AT BEST, cares about it less than you do and needs it less than you do.
What do you think? Is the mom wrong? Is the airline wrong? What would you have done?
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