Pregnancy Flying Ban: Discrimination or Necessary Safety Precaution?

Image via Flickr/Kuster & Wild Haber Photography
Image via Flickr/Kuster & Wild Haber Photography

You adjust the standard-airplane sized safety belt over your belly and click it into place, being careful not to bump elbows with your seat mate.

After adjusting the stale air of the fan above your seat so it’s not blowing 10,000 germs from all over the world directly into your airway, you settle back and listen to the roar of the airplane engines taking off.

The air cabin dings and as automated recording informs you that, “It is now safe to use approved electronic devices.

It’s a common scene every day on airplanes everywhere.

But if you’re pregnant, it may just be a scene that you are prohibited from being a part of.

Across the board, many airlines place severe restrictions and regulations on pregnant women who are flying near their due dates. For instance,

American Airlines’ website states:

“A medical certificate is required if you will be traveling within four weeks of your delivery date in a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy.”

An additional stipulation below that official policy states that travel is “not permitted within 7 days before and after your delivery date.” If such a situation would arise that would necessitate air travel, a “medical certificate is required as well as clearance from our Special Assistance Coordinators.”

Ok, now I understand that airlines are concerned about a woman getting trapped on board and suddenly delivering a baby—but really? Four weeks within delivery? The majority of women do not go into labor an entire month early and asking them to get special clearance and provide proof of that clearance from their doctor seems a bit much, doesn’t it? Not to mention, what exactly is the doctor going to say on this “medical certificate?”

Yes, my patient is pregnant and yes, I don’t think that she, like the majority of pregnant women at 36 weeks is going to spontaneously give birth early, but I also can’t necessarily guarantee it, because, hello, this is birth we are talking about, and I can’t control it, so is this official enough for you?

Although the ban on pregnant women flying is something we all take with a grain of salt—better safe than sorry, right?—it is a little absurd when you think about it. Labor is just not something you can predict and the fact of the matter is, that there is no medical evidence to support the ban for women flying anywhere near their due dates. In fact, if we want to get technical about it, women who are going to give birth near their due date are more likely to have a healthier newborn and better outcomes in mid-air than those who could delivery early, so maybe we should be banning all pregnant women from flying.

In a new paper recently released by The Europen Commision, gender researcher Annick Masselot of the University of Canterbury calls the ban on pregnant women flying “discrimination.”

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People do not question refusal to fly conditions because of the existence of widespread and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are harmful because women who are pregnant have their right to move limited by airlines for no scientific reason

It is arguably a form of control over women in order to limit the potential inconvenience of dealing with a woman going into labor in a plane,” says Masselot.
”There is no reason to impose such conditions on pregnant women when passengers who might suffer from, for example, high blood pressure or heart problems are not requested to provide any evidence of their ability to fly. Pregnancy is not a form of illness.”

Masselot calls the ban on women flying while pregnant a “complete disregard for the law” that points to deeper-ingrained stereotypes and discriminations against women who are not seen as full people with full rights, simply because of their reproductive abilities.

“People do not question refusal to fly conditions because of the existence of widespread and deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. These stereotypes are harmful because women who are pregnant have their right to move limited by airlines for no scientific reason,” she writes.

I must say, the lady has a point. I’m a little embarrassed that I hadn’t questioned the ban before. Of course, we’ve all heard about pregnant women giving birth on airplanes, and it is bound to happen, even with a “medical certificate,” so does the ban make any sense or are all accepting a blatant form of pregnancy discrimination without a second thought?

What do you think – are the pregnancy flying bans discrimination or are they a necessary safety precaution? 

{Related: 10-Year-Old Goes Missing After Flying Alone}

What do you think?

Pregnancy Flying Ban: Discrimination or Necessary Safety Precaution?

Chaunie Brusie is a writer, mom of four, and founder of The Stay Strong Mom, a community + gift box service for moms after loss. ... More

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6 comments

  1. ana says:

    WELL REALLY THEY ARE NEUTRAL BECASUE IN ONE SIDE THEY ARE TRULY CONCERNED about the persons health problem but it should not be banned because like the article read its NOT AN ILLNESS

  2. Phil Shifley says:

    My wife forwarded me an email which contained a link to this ridiculous blog post and because I am a professional helicopter pilot and a glutton for punishment, I couldn’t help but to click on the link.

    There is so much wrong with this post, it is hard to determine where to begin. First, the author seeks to perpetuate a long standing myth that the air emitted from airline overhead nozzles is laced with “10,000 germs from all over the world”. This is nothing more than an urban legend, as all modern commercial aircraft are equipped with extensive HEPA filtration systems. Of course, you are at risk by virtue of being in such close proximity to many people, but no more so than riding the bus, subway, or waiting in the gate area to board the flight. The air coming from the overhead nozzles is actually exceptionally clean. See these references:

    http://www.boeing.com/boeing/commercial/cabinair/environmentfacts.page
    http://www.airbus.com/innovation/well-being/inside/atmosphere/
    http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/cabin_safety/rec_impl/

    Next, the author dives into attacking a single airline’s policy regarding precautions for pregnant travelers. First off, while American Airlines and its partners do have restrictions regarding pregnant travelers, a simple search of just one other airline’s website revealed that Delta Airlines has no such restrictions. Therefore, the consumer has CHOICE regarding with whom they would like to travel when pregnant. Simply fly an airline without restrictions if you are unwilling to obtain the necessary consent forms.

    Since this subject matter is far beyond the author’s expertise as a “writer, speaker, and labor/delivery nurse”, it would make sense that a responsible examination of the subject would lead her to seek out an expert in the subject. In this case, such an expert is called an Aerospace Physiologist who could explain the effects of pressure change on the human body as altitude increases. I am not an aerospace physiologist so I am not going to pretend to be an expert on this topic, but it is a fact that commercial aircraft are NOT pressurized to sea level. Most commercial aircraft are pressurized to 5,000-8,000 feet, or about the altitude of Denver. For most healthy individuals, the resultant reductions in the partial pressure of oxygen (among other changes) is not problematic below 10,000 feet. This is why federal and international aviation regulations permit flight in unpressurized aircraft up to 10,000 feet above sea level. While pregnancy is NOT an illness, it is a significant physiological change to the human body and it is not hard to deduce that there could be adverse effects from taking a person accustomed to seal level pressure up to 5,000-8,000 feet. Another consideration, though statistically speaking not particularly relevant, would be possibility of an explosive decompression exposing cabin occupants to the actual outside altitude (typically, 30,000-38,000) feet. At this altitude, unconsciousness occurs within 10-30 seconds and there are many other severe physiological consequences.

    Besides the technical physiology considerations (which a physiologist would be able to fully explain), you can examine this subject from the airlines and the liability they are willing to assume for your POTENTIALLY poor and uninformed decision making. We now live in an endlessly litigious society where nobody wants to take accountability for themselves and seeks their “golden ticket” opportunity to sue a “big-bad” corporation for their own poor decision making. Imagine you are a 36-40 week pregnant woman (which is well within the “baby could come at any moment” time frame) and you decide to take a trans-Pacific flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. Just to remind everyone, pregnancy is considered “full-term” at 37 weeks. At some point during the flight, you go into labor and the nearest suitable divert for the pilot to consider is HUNDREDS of miles away requiring an hour or more of transit time. Long-haul flights are performed by the largest aircraft and require the longest runways. If the labor goes “the way it should” you may simply end up with a cool story to tell your child when he or she grows up. If the labor does not go well (or even if it does and you don’t make it to a divert), what do you think most people in today’s society are going to do to the airline. SUE THEM, of course. Additionally, there is a more than fair chance that other passengers on the flight will sue or otherwise seek restitution when they ended up in Indonesia for several hours instead of Sydney. By requiring a doctor’s consent form, they’ve essentially covered their rears and from a legal perspective put the responsibility squarely back where it belongs, in the pregnant traveler’s hands. Speaking of potential diverts, the quality and extent of available health care at potential divert locations is unpredictable at best.

    Now many of you might be saying “No pregnant woman in her right mind would take a trans-Pacific flight 37 weeks pregnant!!” I would like to be inclined to agree with you and I intentionally chose an extreme example, but can you GUARANTEE that for all women? Of course not, and neither can the airlines or their insurance companies.

    It is extremely irresponsible to for the author to bias this article completely in one direction by citing only a random European report focused on gender discrimination without seeking out rational explanations for such policies. Let us not forget, only women can get pregnant! I agree that there should be restrictions for travelers with a variety of health conditions, but as one commenter pointed out, it’s very difficult to tell who has a heart condition by looking at them. A woman 36 weeks pregnant is usually pretty conspicuous. What airline would want to face the headline “Woman and newborn baby die during sudden in-flight labor”. Giving birth to a new human is a pretty sacred experience throughout most of mankind and elicits strong emotional responses. When this experience goes south, it typically hits most people (not just those involved) harder than most misfortunes. Pregnant women should be thankful that somebody is taking the time to make them consider, with a professional, the potential consequences of embarking on an activity which MIGHT increase the risk for an adverse outcome in such a precious circumstance. Even if the policy is actually in place to protect the airlines legally, the result is that a pregnant woman sat down to consider the decision of taking a flight in late-term pregnancy. I can assure you, there are plenty of women who would not take such time due to simple and innocent ignorance of the potential consequences or outright disregard for an abundance of caution. Ask yourself, how many women do you know drank alcohol while pregnant? One drink on occasion probably doesn’t hurt, but is it really worth it? Same principle applies in this topic.

  3. I disagree about the full month ahead of your due date comment in this article. Babies are born between 36 and 40 weeks. Your due date is the 40 week mark. Mine was born a week ahead of his due date. My doctor didn’t want me driving a few hours to where my husband was 3 weeks from my due date because your body’s biological ticker is what causes the onset of labor, and it could happen at any time… and while many women have babies away from hospitals, they at least have their midwife on call to come and help with the after effects if they aren’t on scene soon after labor starts. The pressure changes from flying could cause lots of complications if you were to go into labor mid flight, as well as the lack of space to actually spread eagle yourself to push your bundle of joy out. The doctor letter for flying isn’t some brand new thing either, it has been required for at least the last 7 years, if not longer (Im in the military and have had to make sure my Soldier’s spouses had the letter to be able to fly home to have their baby).

  4. Katherine says:

    I think this is ridiculous. Seriously? You are pregnant! You are going to the doctor every two weeks anyway. Just get them to type a letter saying it’s okay to fly and move on!!! Whether you agree or not I’m not sure that it’s worth fighting over. I think the letter is a great way to make sure women are getting medical clearance from their doctor before traveling, especially when close to their due date. The letter is less important to me than making sure that women are discussing these types of things with their doctor and making sure they are in condition to fly.

    I’ve had to get a letter both times I’ve flown pregnant and it was easy, quick, and completely painless. Maybe it is unnecessary, but I think playing the whole gender discrimination card is a bit much.

  5. nichole says:

    i think the only one who can tell a preggy woman she cant fly, should be her doctor. i mean, as mentioned above, other people who have health issues that can be bad to have act up in mid flight are not told they need a docs note, or even banned, from flying. a person with heart disease can have a heart attack at any time. sooo, in the theory of a woman having a baby at any time, shouldnt the heart patient need a docs ok to fly too? because if s/he has a heart attack on a plane, im thinking thats going to go really bad really quick. probably worse then the woman having a baby on a plane….. altho, i do like the sample doctors note in this blog 😉

    • Angela says:

      I’m pretty sure that heart patients are supposed to get their doctor’s permission before flying. Problem with that is, you can’t tell that a person has a heart problem just by looking at them; so the airline employees won’t ask about a doctor’s note. Pregnant women are – most often times – obviously pregnant.

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