Spirit Airlines kicked off an autistic four-year-old child who could not keep his mask on, even though his parents had a doctor’s note and he had no trouble on his outbound Spirit flights without a mask.
Spirit Airlines Kicks Off Family Because Autistic Child Could Not Keep Mask On
Callie Kimball and her family flew Spirit Airlines to Las Vegas last Friday without a problem. She was traveling with her four-year-old boy who has non-verbal autism and cannot keep a mask on. Kimball noted:
“I had a medical note from his physician stating that he’s exempt from wearing masks because whenever he wears a mask he holds his breath or he starts freaking out and he will harm himself.”
That was sufficient on the outbound journey.
But the Kimballs encountered a problem on their return journey. In Las Vegas, the family was informed, after boarding, that their son must wear a mask. The note did not work and Spirit allegedly even denied that autism was a disability. As Kimball shared:
“He has a disability. It’s protected under the American Disability Act and they go, ‘No no no. Autism’s not a disability. He has to wear a mask or he has to get off the plane.’
“Kids on the [autism] spectrum, they’re usually very obsessed with something.He is obsessed with airplanes. So he was sitting in his seat, quietly and looking out the window, and this lady was like, ‘Get off!'”
The family asked American Airlines if it would accommodate them and AA, after examining the doctor’s note, agreed.
A Spirit Airlines spokesperson noted:
“Our existing policy does not provide for medical exemptions, regardless of diagnosis. Our team members explained this to a family traveling today, but never questioned anyone’s medical status in the process.
“Starting March 19, 2021, guests with a medical disability who are traveling on or after March 22, 2021 can apply for an exemption as provided for in the federal mandate requiring masks in airports and on planes.”
Is that delay justified?
A Loophole In the Federal Mandate
The new federal mask mandate, signed as an Agency Order by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), explicitly allows an exemption for passengers with disabilities who cannot wear a mask.
However, it permitted an open-ended notice requirement that airlines have used to dodge the immediate consequences of the new mandate.
“Operators may further require that persons seeking exemption from the requirement to wear a mask request an accommodation in advance.”
Furthermore, it has yet to issue additional guidance on what constitutes a disability:
“This is a narrow exception that includes a person with a disability who cannot wear a mask for reasons related to the disability. CDC will issue additional guidance regarding persons who cannot wear a mask under this exemption.”
It does seem Spirit Airlines has some wiggle room.
Did The Family Have Notice?
Spirit says the family should have known better:
“We remind guests of our face covering policy throughout the booking process, in a pre-trip email sent prior to departure, and in a required acknowledgement that is part of the check-in procedure.”
This is a powerful point in favor of Spirit’s position, assuming the family booked through Spirit Airlines and not an online travel agency which did not clearly disclose this information. Nevertheless, Spirit’s inconsistent application and blatant error in insinuating that autism is not a disability should earn our scorn. I’m pleased that American Airlines agreed to accommodate the family.
I do not believe passengers like a four-year-old with autism should have to wear masks on airplanes. We need to deal with the fact that asking those with disabilities not to fly is selfish and not a permanent solution to co-existing with a virus.
Perhaps the family should have known better. Presenting a note on the day of travel is not as ideal as reaching out to the airline in advance to make arrangements. But they had no trouble on their outbound because the rules did not overrule common sense. The family had no trouble flying home on American Airlines because the rules did not overrun common sense.
It seems to me that the only people who really are opposed to letting people like autistic four-year-olds fly without masks are those who think everyone should not be forced to wear a mask on “fairness” grounds. To that, I say be thankful you do not have autism.
image: KTVH-TV / Fair Use Exception