When then-Rep. Tammy Duckworth had her first daughter in 2014, she found herself in a can’t-win position flying back and forth from Illinois to Washington.
She needed to pump her breast milk every three hours to feed Abigail, the baby. But there was no place to do it.
She asked airport officials. How about the handicapped stall in the bathroom, they suggested? “That’s disgusting,” said the Illinois Democrat, now a senator with two daughters.
How about the sinks in the bathroom, they asked? No outlet, she replied, not to mention a little weird to have fellow travelers washing their hands while she pumped.
What about the place where people charged their cellphones?
“Yeah,” she said. “Like I’m going to go sit next to a bunch of strange guys and strap a couple of breast pumps on the girls and pump away.”
Finally, exasperated, she found herself pumping on the flight next to total strangers, desperately trying to be discreet.
“You’d meet people who didn’t know I was next to them, pumping away,” she said.
Legislation has been born from less surreal experiences, but last week Duckworth managed to turn those strange moments into an accomplishment: The House on Oct. 1 passed her bill to allow small airports to use airport improvement funds to create lactation rooms for mothers. The bill passed the Senate on July 29. It now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.
That bill follows one she got signed into law in 2018 — part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization — that ensured medium and large airports could use their airport improvement dollars to build lactation rooms.
The federal action comes as the private sector looks for its own solutions. Burlington, Vermont-based Mamava Inc. has more than 1,000 portable lactation pods in public spots all over the country, including in John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York. The company incorporated in 2013.
Spokeswoman Ann Pechaver said Mamava has 164 pods in 56 airports. The pods are also in private businesses, malls, stadiums, museums and universities. Pods range in price from $9,000 to $30,000.
“Airports are definitely a place where moms need them,” Pechaver said. “Nobody wants to make their baby’s food in the bathroom.”
Annie Russo, senior vice president of government affairs for Airports Council International-North America, said airports were eager for the flexibility to use their improvement funds for lactation rooms.
She said Duckworth’s bill has launched a broader conversation about how airports can look at the passenger experience and the experience of traveling families.
Duckworth, she said, “had an issue, she called us right away, she worked with us as a trade association and as an industry and said, ‘I think we can do a better job here. How can we work together to address an issue that I had that other nursing moms are having?’”
Duckworth had originally hoped her bill would apply to all airports, but smaller airports initially were hesitant, worrying that they didn’t have the space. They urged her to give them a few years.
So she started with the bigger airports that account for the vast majority of travelers.
But she always wanted to include the smaller airports because, she said, that’s where so many trips begin, and it’s often the best time for nursing mothers to have a moment to pump, rather than when they’re running through a place like Chicago’s O’Hare trying to catch a connecting flight.
Now, they can. And Duckworth is hopeful that there’s a secondary benefit: Maybe her bill will help convince hesitant post-pandemic travelers that they’ll face one less inconvenience when they return to the airport.
“If we’re trying to pull out of this economic crisis, we cannot afford to have any productive worker decide to stay home because going back to work is just not friendly to what they need to do to take care of their family,” she said. “So if we can make this easier for working women in particular, then great, because we need them back in the workforce. We need them to help us pull our economy out of the gutter that it’s in right now.”