Airline horror stories don't seem to be departing any time soon. For mom Sarah Salow, her attempts to get a 12" x 12" cooler filled with frozen breast milk onto American Airlines last week was a nightmare.
When Salow boarded a 9:30 a.m. flight home from Boston to Phoenix with her husband and their 13-month-old son, she thought she had done everything right. Before their initial trip to Boston, Salow said she had called the airline to discuss checking the cooler and was assured it would be OK for her to carry the milk with them. Diaper bags, strollers and breast pump bags are exempt from the airline's carry-on policy. Her son has a severe dairy allergy and could only take her breast milk. He was also born with a class-4 lip tie and posterior tongue tie, so he was never able to nurse directly.
The family brought their son's stroller, diaper bag, Dad's backpack and the cooler. Salow herself didn't have a personal item.
The first flight went smoothly, but on the return flight, attendants had announced that the flight was full and passengers would need to gate check some carry-on bags. When the Salows handed over their tickets, they were stopped by a gate attendant, who said they had too many bags and would have to check one.
Reluctantly, they stepped to the side to have the cooler checked and was told it would cost $150 to gate check.
"I said, 'Are you kidding me?'" Salow told USA Today. The mom had already paid a total of $50 in checked-bag fees and could not afford to spend an extra $150 to check the cooler. It's not clear how the $150 was calculated, as American Airlines charges $35 for a second checked bag, plus a $25 gate surcharge for basic economy passengers. According to their website, the $150 charge would only apply to one passenger's third checked bag.
The Salows couldn't condense their bags because the frozen breast milk had to stay frozen, and they didn't have extra space in their other bags.
Salow said other passengers behind them offered to bring the cooler as part of their carry-on baggage allowance. An airline baggage worker and another flight attendant also offered to help, but all were told no by the gate attendant.
Afraid they would miss their flight, the family decided to leave the cooler, containing enough breast milk to feed their son for three to four days, behind.
"As we boarded the plane, myself in tears, the women continued to berate us that 'we [should thank] them [for] saving us $150' and that 'we created this situation for ourselves,'" Salow wrote on the Breastfeeding Mama Talk Facebook group. "Once we got to our seats, we not only found that our flight was in fact NOT full, but there was overhead storage available directly above our very own seats. We have traveled as a family several times before and have never run into this issue."
Salow told USA Today that she wants reimbursement for the $50 cooler and a clear-cut policy to ease other breastfeeding moms' experiences.
American Airlines has since issued an apology. A spokesperson told Arizona's 12 News, "We are in contact with the customer involved in this incident and are working with our team members who were involved to better understand what happened. The customer should have been allowed to fly with the breast milk, and we apologize that a mistake was made in this case. We have clarified our policies with our team members to specifically call out breast milk (the policy already lists a breast pump bag as an exception) to make sure that this does not happen again."