Here we go again with another case of a family being kicked off Southwest Airlines because of a child with a disability. Southwest claims it did all it could to help the family, but its absurd policy guarantees those unable to wear a mask due to a disability are treated like second class citizens.
Family Denied Boarding On Southwest Because Autistic Five-Year-Old Could Not Keep Mask On
First, the incident. An Iowa family was connecting in St. Louis (STL) to Des Moines (DSM). They had begun the day in Florida and flown the first leg without incident. Their five-year-old son has autism and a sensory perception disorder. He is also non-verbal.
The boy was having trouble keeping his mask on at the gate, throwing it down and refusing to keep it on. As a result, Southwest denied boarding to the family. Other passengers lobbied Southwest to let them onboard, but to no avail.
According to Southwest, the family was instructed it had to fill out a form and receive a note from a doctor in order for their son to travel without a mask. In the meantime, the family was offered a hotel room for the night, courtesy of Southwest.
Instead, the family chose a refund and drove home (about 5.5 hours). While waiting for their baggage, the young boy had a seizure…
Southwest Airlines: We Did Nothing Wrong
Let’s unpack this extended statement from Southwest:
While we regret any inconvenience this family experienced while traveling, federal law requires each person, 2 years of age and older, to wear a mask at all times throughout the travel journey.
Incomplete and misleading opening sentence. There is a clear exemption for passengers with disabilities.
To assist travelers with disabilities, there is a narrow exception to the mask mandate for specific types of disabilities that prevent a person from wearing a mask. Southwest Airlines considers applications for exemptions from this mask requirement from passengers with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or who cannot safely wear a mask because of the disability.
There’s a smoking gun for a lawsuit. It is not up to Southwest Airlines to “consider” what is valid and what is not. If a passenger has a disability that prevents wearing a mask, Southwest must accommodate that passenger.
In this case, a traveler was not wearing a face covering prior to boarding and did not have an exemption to the federal mask mandate.
Not true. The boy had an exemption; he simply had not gone through the ridiculous protocol Southwest demands, as I outline below.
Southwest Employees tried to assist the family by encouraging the child’s face covering be placed over the mouth and nose.
So, so helpful to an autistic child…
Once the family was unable to meet the federal requirement, Southwest offered the family a hotel for the night and to rebook them on a flight today to allow them additional time to comply.
Are we supposed to applaud Southwest Airlines for this?
Instead, the family chose not to fly and was granted a full refund.
The family made the right choice.
It’s the responsibility of Southwest employees to enforce federal regulations. As always, we appreciate the spirit of compliance to the federal mask mandate and the ongoing cooperation among our customers and employees as we work collectively to support the comfort and wellbeing of all who travel with us during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
If it is the responsibility of Southwest employees to enforce federal regulations, then they should have let the boy onboard.
How Southwest Makes Disabled People Grovel For A Mask Exemption
The Southwest website details how exemptions to the mask mandate are granted:
Southwest Airlines will consider applications for exemptions from this mask requirement from Passengers with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or who cannot safely wear a mask because of the disability.
Again, that “consider” language is totally inappropriate if the passenger is disabled and that disability prevents the wearing of a mask.
But in order to seek an exemption on Southwest, the airline requires passengers to:
- Submit a request form at least seven days prior to travel
- Submit a letter signed by passenger’s medical physician on the physician’s letterhead stating that the passenger with a disability has a recognized medical condition precluding the wearing or safe wearing of a mask because of their disability
- Undergo a third-party medical screening as determined by Southwest Airlines
- Procure a negative COVID-19 viral test not more than 72 hours prior to travel
That’s all a bit cumbersome and seems totally disproportionate to the threat onboard of a disabled person without a mask.
But that’s not all. Southwest also warns that disabled passengers may be booted off their flight even with a mask exemption:
Southwest requires that a Passenger obtaining a mask exemption travel on a flight with less than 75% capacity at the time of the flight’s departure, and with no other Passengers on board approved for a mask exemption.
If the passenger’s preferred flight ends up being more than 50 percent full on the day of travel, Southwest Airlines will work to reaccommodate Passengers who obtain a mask exemption.
Please note that Passengers may be required to travel on a different date than their scheduled itinerary. That may also require the Passenger to provide documentation of new (updated) test results at the Passenger’s expense in line with Southwest Airlines’ requirements to receive a mask exemption.
Yes, during a time in which flights are full again, Southwest requires passengers who cannot wear a mask to wait for a flight of Southwest’s choosing, at the passenger’s own expense.
This folks, is the epitome of treating disabled people as second class citizens. It needs to stop, now.
Hopefully this madness will end this autumn and a federal mask mandate will be loosened. I’m really with the family here. A little bit of compassion was called for, not callous indifference. And Southwest did not “respect the letter of the law” as far as I am concerned (and certainly not the spirit of it). The hurdles Southwest makes disabled passengers jump through in order to receive accommodation is disgusting.