Virgin Australia Airlines has responded to controversial allegations that it kicked a woman off a flight and summoned the police after she refused to stop breastfeeding her 10-month-old son.
The statement, which the airline posted on its Facebook page on Tuesday, read: “We’ve seen some misinformation today regarding our policy relating to breastfeeding on board. To clarify, Virgin Australia welcomes breastfeeding and bottle-feeding on board at any time during the flight, especially during take-off and landing when it can help prevent any ear discomfort felt by infants. When the seatbelt sign is illuminated, an infant must be restrained to their carer via the infant seatbelt only, which is provided by our crew. Safety is always Virgin Australia’s number one priority.”
But mom Virginie Rutgers had a different take. “I was in a state of shock honestly,” she told Australian news station Seven News. Rutgers was using a cover to nurse her son on the March 15 flight that was taxiing down the runway but a cabin supervisor asked her to remove it and “started to raise his voice” and became “quite abusive.” She added that she wasn’t given an explanation for why her behavior was wrong so she continued nursing. She was allegedly forced off the plane and met by federal and local police who ultimately released her without charge. Virgin offered Rutgers a flight credit, however she returned home by a Qantas flight.
Virginie Rutgers, who was asked to leave a Virgin Australia flight for breastfeeding, playing with her son. Photo: Seven News
Support for Rutgers was overwhelming on Twitter. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” tweeted @narelleford. “Shame on you…” @bervam wrote. Others said they were “disgusted” by the incident and that it “Makes my blood boil.”
Unfortunately, public breastfeeding is ever-controversial. In March, a Vancouver mom named Kristen Hilderman says she was nursing her five-month-old baby on a United airlines flight when a male flight attendant “threw” a blanket at her and told her to cover up. In August 2013, American Airlines issued an backhanded apology to a mother after a flight attendant offered to move her back a few rows “because there are kids on this flight.” While the airline did acknowledge its unprofessionalism, it clarified that mothers should use discretion “because of the offense that may be taken by others.”
According to Virgin Australia’s website, its breastfeeding policy states, “To help prevent their discomfort, breastfeed or bottle-feed your infant when the aircraft begins take-off and during landing. If you are bottle-feeding, you may need to pack an extra bottle for the flight. Cabin crew will heat bottles and assist you with preparing and washing bottles or pacifiers. There are no private areas set aside for breastfeeding, but you are welcome to feed your baby in your seat.”
Per its Facebook statement, Virgin has chalked up the Rutgers incident to “misinformation,” a scenario that seems to occur repeatedly when it comes to public breastfeeding. In March, after an Oklahoma City woman was asked to leave a YMCA for nursing in the locker room, the company explained that an employee had “misinterpreted” its policy. And in August 2014, after three security guards asked a woman to leave the lobby of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas and finish nursing in the bathroom, the library apologized, saying there was a “misunderstanding” over the company rules.
In most states, it’s legal for a woman to breastfeed anywhere she’s legally allowed to enter. And in Australia, similar laws apply. With so much confusion over a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, why aren’t companies making an effort to crystalize their policies? “My guess is that these cases aren’t a result of miscommunication but rather lack of communication to begin with,” Diana West director of media relations for La Leche League International, tells Yahoo Parenting. She adds that educating employees is a crucial step toward normalizing public breastfeeding. “If a woman doesn’t comply with airline instructions, it’s technically a security issue, but breastfeeding shouldn’t have been a problem in the first place.”