Updated Dec. 10 at 2:45 p.m. ET.
Randi Freyer does not look forward to trips to Cancun.
As her passengers deplane for a week on the beach, Freyer, a pilot for Frontier Airlines, locks the cockpit door, straps on her hands-free breast pump, and turns on a recording of her crying baby. The flight from Denver is four hours — longer if the tarmac needs de-icing — and her breasts are always aching by the time she touches down. In forty minutes, Freyer will be off the ground again, headed back to Colorado.
She only has a few minutes to pump.
Breast-feeding as a pilot wasn’t always this stressful, Freyer said. Frontier, a budget airline based in Denver, used to have what female pilots and flight attendants call a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: Breast-feeding moms pumped their milk in the lavatory during the flight, and no one told them they couldn’t. But when Freyer finally asked for permission — worried about the possible repercussions if she didn’t — she was told she had to wait until the plane was on the ground.
“Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate pumping in the lav while in flight given the safety sensitive nature of your position,” a Frontier employee wrote to Freyer in an email. Women generally need to pump once every two to four hours. Frontier flights — shuttling U.S. passengers from coast to coast, and to Central and South America — are often as long as five or six hours. With delays — air traffic issues or unexpected time on the tarmac, for example — their time on the plane can be significantly longer.
In a pair of lawsuits filed today by the ACLU, four Frontier pilots, including Freyer, and four flight attendants, are suing the airline for pregnancy discrimination. Frontier fails to provide basic accommodations for pregnant employees, the employees write in the complaint, forcing pilots and flight attendants into unpaid leave long before their due dates and preventing them from breast-feeding. (The ACLU originally filed charges with the EEOC on behalf of the pilots in 2016, choosing to file the lawsuit after the EEOC failed to take action.)
“If you’re prohibited from pumping while on duty, you are essentially prohibited from breast-feeding,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU women’s rights project. “You cannot physically go that long.”
In a statement released today, Frontier denied the allegations.
“Frontier Airlines has strong policies in place in support of pregnant and lactating mothers and remains committed to treating all of its team members equally and fairly," said Jennifer de la Cruz, Frontier’s director of corporate communications. "Frontier offers a number of accommodations for pregnant and lactating pilots and flight attendants within the bounds of protecting public safety, which is always our top priority. Frontier denies the allegations and will defend vigorously against these lawsuits.”
Commercial airlines lag behind other sectors on these issues in part because of their history, Sherwin said. When the industry took off in the 1950s and ’60s, it was concerned primarily with the needs and whims of the American businessman. Flight attendants were prohibited from exceeding a certain weight, and regularly fired when they got married or pregnant — openly penalized, Sherwin said, for not being “sufficiently desirable.” While flight attendants have always been primarily women, the role of the pilot continues to skew overwhelmingly male: Only seven percent of certified commercial airline pilots in the U.S. are women.
Pregnancy discrimination at Frontier begins with the company’s leave policies, said Freyer. Pilots are forced to begin unpaid leave at 32 weeks — eight weeks before their due date. While this policy ostensibly exists to promote healthy pregnancies — women are generally prohibited from flying after 36 weeks — it cuts into the time employees would otherwise take off once the baby is born.
“Kids are expensive,” said Freyer. “I knew moms who had to go back at eight weeks because they just couldn’t afford it.”
Freyer didn’t feel ready to stop working when she was told that she had to stop flying. She felt “awesome,” she said, running 5k races up until two days before she delivered. But when she asked to be reassigned to a ground position, working a desk job in the Frontier headquarters, no one responded. Other pregnant employees who have made the same request have been denied — even though the company regularly grants ground positions to employees with other health conditions that prevent them from flying. (Flight attendants have been given desk jobs for on-the job-injuries, including tripping on ice and tripping in the airline aisle, according to the complaint.)
While pilots are given 120 days of unpaid maternity leave, Frontier flight attendants have no designated maternity leave at all. They have to cobble together vacation leave, sick time and whatever is left of their FMLA leave, job-protected unpaid leave that companies with 50 or more employees are legally required to provide under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
“I had to use up a fair amount of that precious stash of days before my baby was even born,” said Melissa Hodgkins, a Denver-based flight attendant involved in the lawsuit. “Then after you have your baby, you have to return to work a lot sooner.”
When Hodgkins had her second baby, in 2017, she had already used up three weeks of her FMLA: Her father had died earlier that year. If Hodgkins hadn’t had a Caesarean section — which won her four weeks of additional leave time — she would have had to return to work four weeks after her baby was born.
“Flight attendants who had babies around the same time I did were like, ‘You’re going to have to straight-up lie. Say that you had complications. Say things to extend your leave of absence,’” said Hodgkins. “Thankfully for me, I guess, I had a C-section.”
She went back to work after two months — which, to Hodgkins, felt far too soon. Like many flight attendants, particularly those early on in their careers, she had relatively little say over where she flew, or for how long. In the first year after she gave birth to her son, she was regularly away from home for up to six days at a time, flying to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Whenever she could, she would try to get a layover in Denver. Sometimes her husband would bring their son to an airport hotel, just so they could spend a few hours together.
Throughout that first year, Hodgkins said, she felt intensely guilty that she couldn’t breast-feed. While no one from Frontier had ever told her that she couldn’t pump, her own breast-feeding complications meant she was only able to use a hospital-grade pumping machine. It didn’t seem feasible, she said, to lug that kind of equipment around the world. Like Freyer, she requested a temporary ground position, so she could continue breast-feeding, but was denied.
“I just felt so defeated from my lack of options: ‘Vulnerable’ and ‘angry’ don’t even begin to describe it. I really felt like I had to choose between nursing my boys and going back to my career,” said Hodgkins.
She wanted to talk to someone about her situation, Hodgkins said, but she didn’t know who to seek out. When she sent in her request for a ground position, she contacted an employee she’d never met, stationed in the Frontier headquarters — a building off airport grounds that Hodgkins has never even been to. The closest thing she has to a boss, she said, is her “in-flight manager,” someone randomly assigned to a group of flight attendants with last names that fall somewhere near hers in the alphabet.
Hodgkins has never met her.
Freyer, on the other hand, does know many of the employees at headquarters. When she wrote in to request a ground position and permission to pump on the plane, she knew the people her emails were addressed to. But it didn’t make a difference, she said. While they were typically quick to respond to any request, she said, on these issues, her emails often went unreturned.
“Crickets,” she said. “On this stuff, all I heard were crickets.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a statement from Frontier.