Michaelle Solages was waiting by a gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport when she heard the announcement universally dreaded by travelers everywhere. Her flight was delayed. And, by the sound of it, she wasn’t going to be boarding a plane anytime soon.
But Solages had more to worry about than just getting to her destination in time. She was heading out on one of her first work trips since giving birth to her son. The delay meant the nursing mom would need to pump before takeoff. As she looked around, she realized there were few options that provided her with the comfort and privacy she desired.
“I didn’t want to express milk in a bathroom, and I also didn’t want to pull out a breast pump in the middle of the terminal where all these people were standing,” she recalled. “It was demeaning.”
Solages eventually found a “weird secluded office space” to duck into so she could pump before her departure. But that 2015 travel nightmare motivated her to champion changes that could help millions of moms like her. As a Democratic member of the New York Assembly, she’s pushing legislation mandating permanent lactation facilities throughout terminals in major New York airports, including JFK and LaGuardia.
“I want to make sure that a woman who is breastfeeding or pumping can find a place to do that which is clean, sanitary and not connected to a bathroom,” said Solages, who is now renewing her fight to pass the proposal as the legislature reconvenes for the new year. “I don’t eat in a bathroom, you don’t eat in a bathroom, and women shouldn’t have to breastfeed in a bathroom.”
The scarcity of lactation facilities at New York’s major travel hubs isn’t unique. A number of airports have unveiled family-friendly features in recent years, but the majority still lack adequate resources. One 2014 survey of the 100 busiest U.S. airports found that while more than 60 percent claimed to be breastfeeding-friendly, just 8 percent offered a space with even the most basic accommodations — an electrical outlet, table and a chair —separate from a bathroom. Dozens of airports reportedly have no private nursing or pumping facilities.
Some airports, including JFK and LaGuardia, have experimented with pods for breastfeeding mothers. But even then, the accommodations are scattered at best. The sprawling JFK compound currently offers just two of such "freestanding suites” for nursing or pumping (located in Terminals 5 and 8), while Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey has five pods across three terminals. Similar facilities offered at LaGuardia have been temporarily removed due to construction.
Solages says those limited and temporary solutions aren’t enough, especially given that tens of millions of passengers pass through New York City airports each year. That’s why the Democratic lawmaker’s proposal calls for permanent, private facilities near security screening areas in every terminal at airports serving more than 1 million enplanements annually.
To Solages, the need for change goes beyond comfort and convenience: It’s a matter of public health. “We should be promoting breastfeeding,” she said. “When we talk about the first thousand days of a child’s life, breastfeeding is one of those components that really improves lifetime outcomes. It’s the best thing we can do.”
This isn’t Solages’s first time pushing for better airport lactation facilities. Earlier versions of her proposal, including one introduced in 2015, passed the New York Assembly but ran into resistance in the state Senate. Solages says the primary concerns were over the cost and burden smaller airports would endure to get up the code. She’s tweaked the language to address that pushback and is in the process of seeking a Senate co-sponsor who she hopes can help shepherd the bill through to the governor’s desk. Her office expects it to come up for another vote in the assembly in the coming weeks.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees JFK and LaGuardia, declined to comment on the pending proposal. But a spokeswoman told the New York Post last year that the airports were looking to increase options in response to requests from passengers. A spokesperson for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is touting a number of family-friendly proposals already this year, said the Democratic governor’s office would review any legislation on the matter.
Solages hopes that her bill, if successful, will become a model for other states. And to her, the fight to get her proposal passed is another example of why it’s so important to elect more women to office — and to support them as they grow their professional and personal lives. When the Long Island Democrat first entered the Assembly in her late twenties, a mentor to many young legislators sat her down and dispensed “advice” for staying focused and being successful in the state capitol. Whatever you do, the mentor said, don’t get a pet or have a baby.
“I shook my head in disbelief,” Solages, now 32, recalled. “The next week, I got a dog.”
A year later, her son Nicholas was born. And it wasn’t until she became a mom herself that she realized just how far short public spaces were falling in supporting new parents. In addition to the airport bill, she’s supporting proposals to improve lactation and diaper-changing facilities in public buildings as well as lift insurance pre-authorization requirements for parents in need of a lactation consultant.