Mother Kicked Off Spirit Airlines Flight For Breastfeeding

Houston-area mother Mei Rui. (Photo credit: KHOU)

The holiday travel season is just around the corner, and so too will likely be air travel horror stories.

In recent years, stories of unconscionable treatment by airline and airport staff against paying airplane passengers  have rocked social media. Too often, those harassed passengers are Asian American.

Who could forget, for example, the story of Dr. David Dao, who was bloodied by airport security before being dragged off a full United Airlines flight? Or, the story of Anila Daulatzai, a Pakistani American Muslim, who was forcibly removed from a Southwest Airlines plane because she told flight attendants she was allergic to two dogs traveling on the flight? Or, the experiences of Sikh American actor Waris Ahluwalia, who was inexplicably prevented from boarding his flight from Mexico last year?

This week, it happened again.

Houston-area mother, Mei Rui, was traveling with her two-year old toddler and her elderly parents on a Spirit Airlines flight from Houston to Newark last week when she and her family was removed from their seats for breastfeeding.

According to The Washington Post, Rui’s early-morning flight to Newark was significantly delayed on Friday due to poor weather conditions. The flight — and its full cabin of passengers — were stuck at the gate, and as it grew later into the morning, Rui grew increasingly concerned about how to prevent her two-year-old son from getting fussy and screaming through the entire three-hour flight. (Parents of young children know to plan their travel plans around their children’s daily routines to minimize disruption to other passengers; early-morning or red-eye flights are attractive because young children are more likely to sleep during take-off and landing.)

“Every parent with a young child can image (sic), you don’t want to be that parent on the plane,” she told The Washington Post. “It would be very embarrassing. I was just trying to avoid that.”

As the delay stretched on, Rui decided to breastfeed her son, hoping that this would keep him calm enough to sleep through the rest of the flight.  This shouldn’t have been a problem: although Rui had purchased a seat for her toddler, the airplane’s doors were still open and passengers were not yet required to be buckled into their seats.

However, as Rui began to breastfeed, a flight attendant came over to tell her she had to stop because her son had to be seated for takeoff. Rui asked if she could have a few more minutes to finish as the attendants prepared to shut the door, as she knew that her son would scream if the feeding was ended early. Minutes later, Rui hurriedly stopped breastfeeding and buckled her son in — and, predictably, the toddler began to wail.

That’s when flight attendants told Rui that she and her family would have to disembark the plane. When Rui refused — and began filming the incident on her cellphone — all passengers were told to get off the plane. Police officers greeted Rui and her family at the gate and told Rui that she would not be allowed to reboard the plane because she did not comply with flight crew instructions.

Rui and her family never made it to Newark. Indeed, the stress of the encounter with airport police was so severe that Rui’s father collapsed later in the day and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

It’s hard to imagine how Spirit Airlines could be in the right on this one. It seems as if Rui was doing her best to be mindful of her fellow passengers, and to comply with flight crew instructions in the face of unexpected delays. It is not against the rules for passengers to be out of their seats while the airplane door is open, and Rui rushed to put her son in his seat before the door was closed. Breastfeeding in public is not a crime; nor should it face the kind of public stigma that it does.

Flight crews have a lot of latitude in deciding which passengers must be removed because they pose a safety risk to the rest of the flight. But are flight crews increasingly using that power to punish passengers who “talk back” to them? And if so, what are the chances that passengers of colour will be more likely to be perceived as rude, unruly —  or, more specifically, uppity?

The frequency of stories involving Asian American passengers begs the question: Do Asian Americans face special scrutiny when we fly? Is implicit anti-Asian bias influencing the kind of treatment we receive from flight attendants and airport security?

In all the stories above, an Asian American passenger stood up for themselves against seemingly unreasonable treatment by airplane and airport staff; and they faced totally unreasonable sanction for their self-advocacy. Do stereotypes against Asian Americans that suggest that we are meek, culturally non-adept or linguistically inaccessible increase the chances that we will face disproportionately harsh treatment, particularly when we defy those stereotypes?

I’m reminded of an episode earlier this year when I was traveling for a conference. While the flight was in the air, I pulled out my laptop to work. I was in the middle of working with a very large, high-resolution graphic for a manuscript I was preparing when the pilot signaled we were beginning our descent and that all laptops had to be stowed away. I quickly tried to stop what I was doing, save my file, and shut down my laptop. (I don’t travel with my laptop in sleep mode in order to protect the hard drive.) Not thirty seconds after the pilot’s announcement, a flight attendant came over to tell me to turn off my laptop. I nodded and she walked away. Less than two minutes after that — and as my file was still saving and I was trying to shut my laptop down — she stormed back over, screwed her face up, pointed at me, and said in a raised and threatening voice, “I told you: you have to turn that thing off.”

I told her matter-of-factly that I was in the process of saving my file and shutting it down — and frankly, that my file was too important for me to risk corrupting it by closing my laptop improperly. The flight attendant gave me a look that told me that if we were on the ground I would, in no uncertain terms, have been booted from the flight for being “non-compliant.” I had dared to self-advocate.

To add insult to injury for this flight crew member, here I was — an Asian American woman — unwilling to play the stereotype of the demure, the meek, and the submissive for her.

The problem wasn’t that I was non-compliant; it was that I — like many of the Asian American passengers referenced in this piece– didn’t “hop to” fast enough for her liking. I guess, for some flight attendants, Asian Americans who “don’t know our place” on a flight deserve to be dragged off of it by police.

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