In the last two months, including twice in the last week, I have covered three stories involving disabled passengers on Southwest Airlines who were unreasonably removed. Is this all a coincidence or does Southwest have a culture problem in the way it treats disabled passengers?
Does Southwest Airlines Mistreat Disabled Passengers?
Three recent stories highlight that Southwest has little tolerance for disabled passengers, even though federal mask guidelines explicitly exclude such people from its obligatory mask rule.
- Southwest Kicks Off Disabled Man For Not Wearing Mask, Despite Federal Exemption
- Family Denied Boarding On Southwest After Autistic Child Couldn’t Wear Face Mask
- Southwest Kicks Off Family Out Of Fear Three-Year-Old Might Remove Mask During Flight
We cannot even say the common thread in each story was not wearing masks, for just last week Southwest kicked off a family out of fear their disabled three-year-old son would remove his mask (even though he had been in compliance).
As a reminder, the federal mask mandate has three exceptions:
- A child under the age of 2 years
- 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.)
- A person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.
The U.S. Centers For Disease Control offered further clarification on the disability exemption:
- A person with a disability who, for reasons related to the disability, would be physically unable to remove a mask without assistance if breathing becomes obstructed. Examples might include a person with impaired motor skills, quadriplegia, or limb restrictions
- A person with an intellectual, developmental, cognitive, or psychiatric disability that affects the person’s ability to understand the need to remove a mask if breathing becomes obstructed
There are additional exemptions here.
The CDC suggests, “If travel is pre-scheduled, schedule travel for people who are exempt at less crowded times or on less crowded conveyances.”
While logical in theory, at a time in which most domestic airplane flights are once again full, this is not helpful guidance.
Southwest uses this guidance to make passengers seeking an exemption go through an extremely arduous process including:
- 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
Southwest also warns passengers they may be booted off their confirmed flight if the flight is full or there is another passenger with a disability onboard:
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.
Translation: Southwest requires passengers who cannot wear a mask to wait for a flight of Southwest’s choosing, at the passenger’s own expense.
That is simply unreasonable. Southwest may have leeway in how it administers its exemption, but this demonstrates that Southwest’s harsh rules for disabled passengers are of its own making, not handed down by federal fiat.
Thus, the question of reasonableness comes into play. Is the burden disproportionate to the risk? I would argue the answer is a definite YES.
And the practical result remains: disabled passengers are treated with indifference and a lack of empathy. That is not good policy.
I’ve been disturbed by the trio of recent stories about disabled passengers being booted from Southwest. We should realize that Southwest’s hands are actually not tied; that this is a voluntary choice. And Southwest should realize that treating disabled passengers as second class citizens by subjecting them to inane requirements or long waits perpetuates a system in which human dignity cannot be enjoyed.
It may be that these cases are outliers. After all, it is bad news, not good news, that tends to make headlines. But even if these three cases are exceptions, they are unacceptable exceptions.