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Southwest Airlines removes autistic boy and his family over face mask

Southwest Airlines removed a three-year-old and his family from a flight after the boy wouldn't keep his mask on.

Posted: Aug 14, 2020 6:31 AM
Updated: Aug 14, 2020 6:31 AM

Southwest Airlines removed a passenger and her 3-year-old son from a Monday flight after the boy, who has autism, refused to wear a face mask and became upset.

Passenger Alyssa Sadler, who was also traveling with her 1-year-old daughter, told CNN affiliate KPRC that the family was deplaned from the Southwest flight from Midland, Texas, to Houston, Texas.

"It was just not a good morning," said Sadler. "He was screaming. He was throwing a fit. He was screaming no, no, no."

Sadler told KPRC her son has a sensory processing disorder and doesn't like his face being touched and that she had a medical note explaining the condition.

Sadler added the family previously had been able to fly from Houston to Midland without an issue. They were visiting Sadler's husband, who is working in Midland.

Strict mask policy

The Monday flight had left the gate in Midland, but the plane turned around when it became clear the child was not going to wear a mask during the journey.

Southwest Airlines has a strict mask policy that requires all passengers 2 and older to wear a mask or face covering for the duration of the flight.

A face mask policy was originally introduced in early May and from July 27, the airline introduced mandatory face coverings with "no exemptions," apart from for children younger than 2.

The airline said if a customer cannot wear a face mask "for any reason," Southwest "will be unable to transport the individual."

The carrier added that in those instances, a full refund will be issued and they "hope to welcome the customer onboard in the future, if public health guidance regarding face coverings changes."

From August 8, the airline clarified what kinds of face coverings are allowed, stipulating that masks with exhaust valves or those that cannot be secured under the chin are not accepted.

The airline also told CNN that customers are informed of the policy on the website during booking, in an email before departure and during the check-in process.

'There shouldn't be any exceptions'

In a CNN interview on Wednesday, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly emphasized the no-exceptions policy when asked about the incident.

"What we have concluded is there shouldn't be any exceptions, because the exception could be someone who has the virus," Kelly told CNN's Poppy Harlow.

"I'm very empathetic. I'm a grandfather. I have small grandchildren and I know how kids can be, but it's just a matter of making sure that it's a safe environment for everyone including all those families."

Sadler added that she had no issue with wearing a mask during the flight but believes certain travelers should be exempt from the rule.

"I think there needs to be something in place for children or even adults with disabilities who can't wear mask. They should have some kind of exemption," she said.

Many US airlines are taking a hard line on masks, with carriers including Delta, American Airlines and United adopting a policy of banning passengers from future flights if they fail to wear a mask.

Delta recently told CNN that "well over 100 people" have refused to keep their mask on for the duration of the journey and been subsequently banned from flying on the airline.

It is currently up to individual US airlines to decide their passenger mask policy. The FAA has not issued a federal requirement.

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