It's a story we've heard before: mom goes on vacation or a work trip, pumps and freezes her milk, then attempts to take it through airport security and is denied . . . but this story isn't quite that one. After a trip with her husband and 13-month-old son to Boston, Sarah Salow was flying back home to Phoenix, AZ, and though she made it through airport security with a cooler full of her breast milk, the cooler didn't make it onto the plane with them because American Airlines wanted to charge the family $150 for the carry-on item.
Salow had called American Airlines before her flight to ensure that carrying the cooler onto the plane for free with her basic economy ticket would be OK, and she was assured that she wouldn't have an issue. Upon arrival at the gate in Boston Logan International Airport, however, Salow was told that she'd have to check her cooler.
"When we approached the counter to have our tickets scanned, the women at the counter told us we had too many bags and we would have to check one," Salow shared on the Breastfeeding Mama Talk Facebook page. "I explained that our diaper bag and backpack were personal items and the cooler contained our son's breast milk and that it was necessary to keep it with us. They told us it was not necessary. They then told us we would have to pay to have the cooler checked so we stepped off to the side to process the transaction as other passengers scanned their tickets and boarded the flight. One of the women told us it would cost $150 to gate check our cooler when they were doing so as a courtesy just moments ago to other passengers. We were shocked."
With a basic economy ticket, American Airlines allows passengers to travel with one carry-on item that can fit underneath the seat — any additional bags would have to be checked before going through security, and the passenger would be charged $25 for one bag, $35 for each additional item after that. So checking the item should have cost Salow between $25 and $35, plus a $25 fee for checking at the gate rather than the ticket counter — it's unclear where the $150 figure came from.
The mom was then asked to try to condense her things into two bags, but she was unable to due to the stiffness of the frozen milk. At this point, Salow was offered help from other passengers without personal items who volunteered to carry the cooler, but all were denied.
"Because we are a young, growing family it wasn't economical for us to spend $150 to check the cooler and we were forced to leave it behind," Salow wrote. "As we boarded the plane, myself in tears, the women continued to berate us that 'we were welcome for them saving us $150' and that 'we created this situation for ourselves.' One of the gentlemen moving the gate check bags below offered to get the bag for us but was again denied by the same supervisor woman. A flight attendant on board also offered and was turned down. 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."
Leslie Scott, a spokesperson for American Airlines, has since commented on the incident, claiming that the situation was completely the airline's mistake and that Salow should have been permitted to take her cooler on the flight with her. Although basic economy tickets have bag restrictions and fees, "strollers, diaper bags, breast pumps, and breast milk containers are among the items exempt from the restrictions." However, the part about breast milk containers was apparently unclear for gate attendants, and Scott said the exemptions list has been made more clear since this incident.
"We wanted to make it easier for our agents and just make the policy explicitly clear so that this doesn't happen again," Scott said.
"I've heard of these horror stories from other moms and have always sworn I would never find myself in the situation to have to leave my milk behind and today it happened to me and I am a absolutely devastated," Salow wrote. "Not only for my son but for how myself and my family were treated. I promise to share our story with everyone I can so that my friends and family can protect themselves by flying with another airline as to not experience the absurdity we did."