An Iowa family says they were prohibited from boarding a Southwest Airlines flight because their autistic son could not wear his face mask.
Instead, the family said they were forced to rent a car and drive home to Des Moines from St. Louis. The family – parents Cody and Paige Petek and their two children – were waiting on a connecting flight in St. Louis after arriving from Florida, where they had been on vacation.
But their 5-year old non-verbal son has autism and a sensory processing disorder, making it difficult for him to wear a face mask. A fellow passenger on the flight, Dr. Vince Hassel, said other customers were lobbying to get the boy on board when the Southwest Airlines crew refused.
“They weren’t going to let the kid on the plane if he didn’t put his mask on,” Hassel said. “He just wasn’t having it and throwing a fit. Just to watch this play out was absolutely horrible.”
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As this was playing out, the family said their son had a seizure, but his medication was on board the flight to Des Moines.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) policy calls for people with disabilities who cannot wear a mask because of the disability are exempt from having to wear a mask.
The Peteks’ lawyer said he thinks Southwest Airlines violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There’s clear guidance from the department of transportation about what the airline should do,” said Anthony L. Marchetti Jr, the Petek’s lawyer. “None of that happened here.”
In a statement, Southwest said “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… 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.
“… 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. Southwest Employees tried to assist the family by encouraging the child’s face covering be placed over the mouth and nose. 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. Instead, the family chose not to fly and was granted a full refund. 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.”
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