CHICAGO – A family trying to fly from Midway to Los Angeles Monday said they were discriminated against because their son is disabled and cannot wear a mask for medical reasons.
The Fleming family believes Southwest Airlines needs to be aware of how its policies affect its most vulnerable passengers.
Bryan Fleming, 22, functions like a toddler due to his disability. Family said he’s vaccinated and has orders from two doctors for a mask exemption.
“We had two doctors’ letters, a negative COVID test, we have proof of his two COVID vaccines,” mother Cheri Fleming said. “Gave everything they needed and it still wasn’t good enough still.”
Fleming and her son were trying to fly from Midway to Los Angeles on Monday.
Cheri said Bryan did not have a mask on at any point, but nobody said anything to them until they were seated on the airplane. That’s when they were asked to leave.
“You can’t just tell all the disabled people to wait until you figure it out,” Fleming said.
Fleming has multiple sclerosis and was headed to California to care for another friend with MS who just had surgery.
Fleming said she anticipated problems and called Southwest to make sure they had everything they would need so Bryan could be accommodated. Customer service representatives told them to bring a doctor’s note.
While they will have a new process in place for people with disabilities later this month, nothing was in place as of Monday. When WGN News asked if people with disabilities who cannot wear masks should avoid flying Southwest until later this month, they said yes.
Legal experts said when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act, people need to be reasonably accommodated. They said it could be as simple as seating them in a socially distanced area.
The Fleming family doesn’t feel like Southwest even tried to accommodate them.
“They announced as soon as we got on the flight, there were 40 empty seats,” Fleming said.
The federal rule concerning masks on airplanes does have a narrow exception for people with disabilities. Southwest said starting March 14, people with disabilities who can’t wear a mask will need to apply for a special exemption. Then, they can start flying without a mask starting on March 21 if they’re approved.
Southwest Airlines sent the following statements regarding the incident.
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 flight, including during boarding and deplaning. 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.
Southwest communicates the face covering policy to all Customers at multiple touchpoints throughout the travel journey, including: during booking, in a pre-trip email sent prior to departure, and during a required acknowledgement that is part of the Customer Health Declaration Form and appears during the check-in process on the Southwest app, Southwest.com, Southwest’s mobile website, and airport kiosks.
Per the federal mask mandate, there is now a narrow exception for specific types of disabilities that prevent a person from wearing a mask, and Southwest recently announced the airline’s process for evaluating Customer requests to travel with an exemption. Beginning March 14, 2021, Southwest Airlines will consider 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 and are traveling March 21, 2021 or later. However, this exemption requires an application and documentation to be submitted prior to travel (a Customer cannot simply show up at the airport with documentation) and was not, yet, in place when this family traveled.
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.
As part of our Southwest Promise, Southwest has had a mask mandate since May 2020, and there have been no exemptions, except for children under the age of 2 years of age. Now, as part of the federal mask mandate, beginning March 14, 2021, Southwest Airlines will consider 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 and are traveling March 21, 2021 or later.
Our records indicate the Customer was reminded to wear a mask. As a gesture of support, Southwest Employees worked with the Customer, but, ultimately, as a last resort, had to deny travel before departure when the Customer could not comply with the mask mandate.
Thanks for allowing us to provide these details. The Southwest Team works diligently each day to serve our Customers with Southwest Heart while providing world-class hospitality – which is especially important during the ongoing pandemic.