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Breast-feeding passenger settles airline lawsuit

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A woman who was ordered off an airplane in Vermont for refusing to cover herself up while breast-feeding her child has reached a settlement with Delta Airlines and two other airline companies she sued.

Emily Gillette of Santa Fe, N.M, says she was kicked off a Delta Connections flight in Burlington in 2006 because she wouldn’t cover herself with a blanket while nursing her 1-year-old daughter. Gillette filed a complaint with Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and then a lawsuit against Delta Airlines, Freedom Airlines Inc. and Mesa Air Group Inc. for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Her lawyer on Friday would not say how much the airlines will pay. The amount was redacted from a copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Associated Press and first reported by the Burlington Free Press.

“I am relieved that this long ordeal is now over but hope that the outcome is much more than a story about one case of discrimination,” Gillette said in a statement. “I hope my experience and how I was treated helps raise awareness of this important health benefit for children and nursing mothers.”

Her story, which gained national attention, prompted a protest “nurse-in” in 19 airports in November 2006 by outraged mothers.

Phoenix-based Mesa and the now-defunct Freedom also have agreed to pay the Vermont Human Rights Commission $20,000 in a separate settlement.

The commission had found that there was reasonable grounds to believe that Mesa and Freedom discriminated against Gillette based on a Vermont law that protects women’s right to breast-feed in public. But the commission did not find Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, responsible because it was not the carrier. Freedom, a subsidiary of Mesa, operated the flight.

“We’re happy to have the airlines say, yes, we welcome breast-feeding on our airplanes,” said Robert Appel, executive director of the commission.

Freedom Airlines also apologized to Gillette and her family, saying it is the company’s policy to accommodate the needs of customers who are breast-feeding. Mesa Airlines also offered a statement in the settlement agreement, from a Nov. 14, 2006, news release, that said the company firmly supports a mother’s right to nurse her children on board their aircraft.

“We have no company policies whatsoever that hinder breast-feeding in any way,” said Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and chief executive officer.

Gillette’s lawyer, Elizabeth Boepple of Portland, Maine, said the settlement shows that providing rights to mothers, as Vermont did, can create positive results and that such legal protections are crucial.

“But, as Emily’s story also shows, existence of such legal rights is not enough in the absence of education and societal support,” she said.