Two issues are at play here. First, is the mask mandate itself for three-year-olds. Second, is the inconsistent enforcement of it. Once again, another family was forced to step off a Southwest Airlines flight after their three-year-old son could not keep his mask on…but they flew again the next day and he wasn’t wearing a mask.
Issue #1: Can Disability Exception Cover Children Who Cannot Wear Masks On Airplanes?
One way to look at this matter is Southwest Airlines is merely following the rules. The federal mask mandate requires children two years old and older to wear a mask on commercial flights. The rule is clear enough and airlines are not given much discretion in enforcing it, though I would argue that there is more discretion available than airline assume (keep reading).
The mask mandate (.pdf) allows for the following exception:
A person with a disability who cannot wear a mask, or cannot safely wear a mask, because of the disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq)
The ADA defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”
The act further details that major life activities include, but are not limited to:
- caring for oneself
- performing manual tasks
So let me ask you this: can a three-year-old care for oneself? Can a three-year-old perform many manual taks? Lift? Speak? Concentrate? Work?
A disability under the ADA cannot be “transitory” in nature, but a “transitory impairment is an impairment with an actual or expected duration of six months or less.” I would assert that a child does not become self-sufficient by age 3.5…or even for the next six years.
Therefore, I think airline have some leeway in seeing a child unable to keep his mask on as a disability while maintaining fidelity to the ADA.
My four-year-old son can keep his mask on, but I’d try that if he couldn’t.
I cannot fault Southwest Airlines for refusing to flout federal rules, but I also think Southwest could show empathy by classifying the inability of a young child to wear a mask as a disability. Throwing families off is simply ridiculous.
Issue #2: Selective Enforcement Of Mask Policy On Southwest Airlines
Interestingly, I’ve seen a lot more children lately in the 2-5 range flying WITHOUT masks than with masks…and in most cases, flight attendants say nothing.
I do applaud that but also note that just because a flight attendant fails to enforce a rule on one occasion does not mean you can ignore the rule on future occasions.
Here, the family lives in San Jose, California and flew to Las Vegas without issue on Southwest even though their son could not keep his mask on.
Then, the family was boarded on the return flight even though their son was not wearing a mask, only to be threatened “as criminals” (according to the family) by flight attendants when their son could not keep his mask on once onboard.
Fearing the police would be called, the family voluntarily left the flight. Southwest rebooked them to travel the next day and they did without issue…and their son once again did not wear his mask.
By this point, having flown frequently over the last year, I really do not think airlines care. Instead, airlines will defer to flight attendants who are uncomfortable when passengers do not wear mask, but if the flight attendants say nothing, the airline really does not care.
Some children are easily able to wear masks while others are not. For those who are not, I think it is time to start considering that inability to keep the mask on a disability and letting it slide pursuant to that exception in the mask rule.
In any case, I hope the federal mask mandate will expire in September. I believe once that happens we will see far fewer cases of poor behavior onboard and no more cases of families being thrown off due to absurd masking rules for very young children.