Des Moines Family Denied Flight Home When Child With Autism Couldn’t Wear Mask

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DES MOINES, Iowa — A Des Moines family was denied a flight home by Southwest Airlines after their young son with autism was unable to wear a face mask.

Exhausted from their trip to Florida, the Petek family was looking forward to finally getting home to Des Moines. Just as eager was 5-year-old Keaton, who lives with autism. While the family was traveling home, Keaton was unable to wear his mask due to severe sensory issues. The family encountered a problem with the airline as they were about to board their final flight in St. Louis.

“We were denied access onto our last flight home because Keaton was not able to keep his mask over his face due to his severe sensory issues and autism,” Keaton’s mother, Paige Petek, wrote on Facebook.

The family’s attorney, Anthony Marchetti Jr., said the Peteks set up their boarding passes for the last leg of their flight so that they would be in the back row by themselves and separated from other passengers. However, that didn’t matter to Southwest. The family was prevented from flying and escorted out by police.

Southwest Airlines says its employees were just following CDC policy. That policy, put in place in February, requires everyone 2 years old and older to wear a face mask while flying. Southwest Airlines does offer exemptions to the mask mandate for people with disabilities. However, the exemption must be requested prior to flying, not on the day of the flight.

Southwest Airlines says it offered the Peteks a hotel room for the night and would rebook them on the first flight the next morning. The problem was their luggage, which included Keaton’s seizure medication, was already headed back to Des Moines. Instead of staying the night, the Peteks rented a car and made the six-hour drive home.

The Peteks are relieved to finally be home. “[Keaton] is doing well. He’s home, he’s in his environment and things have calmed down. He’s been seizure free and he is home with his family. They’re taking great care of him as they do always, every day,” said Marchetti Jr.

Although Keaton is protected under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, Southwest Airlines said, “The CDC order requires that air carriers make exemptions available for passengers with disabilities who cannot wear a mask — however the air carriers are allowed to impose conditions such as advance notice.”

Southwest Airlines’ full statement to WHO 13 reads:

“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. Southwest communicates the face covering mandate to all Customers at multiple touchpoints, including: during booking; in a pre-trip emails sent prior to departure; and during a required acknowledgement that is part of the Customer Health Declaration Form that appears during the check-in process on the Southwest app, Southwest.com, Southwest’s mobile website, and airport kiosks.

To support 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. This exemption process is detailed on our website under “Mask Exemptions” and requires an application and documentation to be submitted prior to travel for review and approval.

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 the next flight to allow them additional time to comply. Instead, the family chose not to travel and was offered a refund.

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.

You can read more about the mandatory face mask policy here.”

Southwest Airlines

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