DES MOINES, IA – A 5 year-old boy with autism and his family were allegedly removed from a Southwest Airlines flight recently after the child encountered difficulties in wearing his face mask, reports say.
Cody and Paige Petek of Des Moines, Iowa, along with their two children, were on their way home from a vacation in Florida on Sunday when their son began having problems wearing his face mask while the family was on a layover in St. Louis, according to KCCI Des Moines.
The child, aged five, has autism, is non-verbal, and has a sensory processing disorder; these issues, the family says, causes difficulty for him at times when wearing a mask, and this reportedly occurred during the layover. As a result, airline personnel allegedly refused to allow the boy to board the flight to Des Moines International Airport, despite several other passengers intervening on the family’s behalf and informing the Southwest Airlines crew to allow the family to fly.
Southwest Airlines states on their website that masks are a requirement for all passengers in their flights.
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“Federal law requires each person to wear a mask at all times in the airport and throughout the flight, including during boarding and deplaning,” the Southwest site says. “Refusing to wear a mask is a violation of federal law and may result in denial of boarding, removal from the aircraft, and/or penalties under federal law.”
However, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website notes that they allow exemptions to mask policies during air travel on the basis of an individual having a disability.
“In developing implementing guidance, TSA collaborated with stakeholders in identifying certain exemptions to the face mask requirement,” the TSA website states. “Exemptions include travelers under the age of 2 years old, those 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, and those for whom a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety, or job duty as determined by relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.”
Southwest Airlines gave a statement according to KCCI Des Moines, saying that they accept exemption applications “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 also stated that they offered to book a hotel room for the family and, when they decided not to rebook their flight and took an alternate means home, gave them a full refund.
A lawyer for the family interviewed by WKMG News 6 Orlando says the airline violated the Americans with Disabilities act. “There’s clear guidance from the department of transportation as to what the airlines should do, none of that happened here.”
This isn’t the first time Southwest has denied service to a family with a special-needs child due to mask concerns; a Colorado mother has criticized the airline this week after she claimed they wouldn’t allow her family on a flight because their three year-old son, who has a sensory processing disorder, finds wearing masks “challenging.”
Caroline Scott said that she contacted Southwest about her son’s aversion to face coverings and was told that it would not be an issue; however, when the family arrived to board the flight, airline officials would not allow them to fly because her son was not wearing a mask.
“We were deplaned not for our behaviors, but for disclosing my son’s disability, which is discrimination,” Scott said in an interview this week.