What happens when having a baby keeps you from taking enough flights to keep your status? Do the airlines even care? (Photo: Thinkstock)
Being a pregnant business traveler, or one who is a new mom, can make you feel like an alien.
Norms for working women are changing fast: from Facebook offering employees medical coverage to freeze their eggs to special perks and lounges for women business travelers at leading hotels (I recently stayed at a Hyatt whose “for her” program offered women business travelers entry to a free women’s only lounge with champagne, massages and chick flicks). Last month at the American Airlines lounge at National Airport, I was surprised to find a Dermalogica skincare promotional counter, offering skin care consults. It seemed a subtle but significant nod to the fact that women fly for business too; we’re in the business class lounges, and we don’t just want ESPN and salty nuts as perks.
Usually, when I fly for business from Boston to New York or Washington, I’m one of few women on the early morning shuttle. It’s my experience that the profile of the business traveler still looks much more Mad Men than new American work force. And being a pregnant business traveler, or one who is a new mom, can make you feel like an alien. While traveling for business in my childbearing years, I’ve pumped milk in many disgusting public airport bathrooms in desperate search of a plug, had my precious baby milk seized, tested, and contaminated by TSA, and been endlessly questioned and pulled aside by TSA because I would not go through the XRay Scanner while pregnant.
Now I’m expecting my 3rd baby in 2 weeks, and tapered off my frequent flying beginning in August. I’m no road warrior but I fly about 100,000 miles a year. As of November 13, I was grounded. Knowing that many frequent flier programs have year-end deadlines for collection and rollover, I decided to call the programs in which I have status and see if I could put the deadlines on hold until I have the baby and am able to start flying again.
Stop no. 1 was US Airways. I spoke with the customer service rep and her supervisor. It turns out I have 2 more segments to qualify for 30 segments (before Dec. 31 2014) and automatic Silver Preferred status for 2015. However, I was informed by customer service that there is no way to 1) purchase the two segments or 2) put my status on hold until I start flying again so I don’t lose the status. This policy basically means I will be punished and lose my status simply because I am having a baby and cannot fly.
On the phone and in writing, US Airways informed me they never make exceptions for medical leave or maternity leave. I said I’d be happy to purchase the 2 segments and they told me I could not.
American Airlines does not have a maternity policy but would let me repurchase status lost at the end of 2014. Virgin America and Delta do not have any “maternity leave” policies. The only international airline I tried, British Airways, has an informal policy and offered to put my miles on hold if I sent in a doctor’s note, which felt reasonable.
Regressive policies like US Airways’ help keep women back. Frequent flier status is a subject of near obsession for business travelers, and with good reason. It’s not about perks, but about making life on the road bearable. If you don’t have status in the world of airlines, you probably won’t make it out of Chicago in a snowstorm in time for that big meeting, or get home for your family. It’s a big deal.
I’m often on the US Airways Shuttle -and I make the choice to fly it because that my Preferred status gets me upgrades most flights, priority in getting out when they are major airport delays, and early boarding no matter what. It makes those horrible hours spent delayed in La Guardia and National Airport a little better. And because I run a small business and often pay for trips out of my own pocket for business development, it is a statement of my loyalty that I pay premium for US Airways when I could shop around for cheaper deals.
The most public and publicized instances of airlines discriminating against mothers, such as getting kicked off a plane for breastfeeding, are egregious, and draw headlines and protests. But erasing hard earned frequent flier status from women business travelers who are grounded because of pregnancy is a more subtle inequity that I guarantee you, most airlines haven’t even begun to think about.
It’s time to rethink. We live in a world in which 70% of women with children under 18 are in the labor force, women are primary or co-breadwinners in ⅔of households and 40% of all households include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.
Mama road warriors out there: what’s your worst business travel story? Did you work with airlines successfully to restore lost status or go on maternity leave? Please share your tips!!