Southwest Airlines Grounds Family Of Boy With Disabilities Over Mask Resistance
DENVER — A Colorado family with a child who has disabilities was not allowed to board a Southwest Airlines return flight to Denver because of a corporate directive after a flight attendant’s concern that the boy would not wear a mask, the family said.
Trent Smitley, 30, his wife Andi, 27, and their 7-year-old son, Kingston, who has the mental capacity of a 1-year-old, were returning to Denver International Airport on May 9, having already flown to Salt Lake City on Southwest a couple of days earlier, when they were not allowed to board the plane, Trent Smitley said.
Kingston, who has epilepsy, cerebral palsy and malformation of the brain, has trouble wearing a mask.
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“He won’t wear a mask because of his disability,” Smitley said.
The parents told Southwest officials that they’d continually strive to keep the mask on Kingston for the roughly 90-minute flight, but the airline was firm.
After flying to Salt Lake City on May 7, for a cousin’s wedding and for Kingston to visit with extended family members, the small family was tired from the whirlwind weekend and eager to board the jet. Kingston was formally adopted by the couple on May 6. He has been in the foster care for about 15 months.
“We didn’t think anything of it,” Smitley said of the return flight.
“It should have been the same thing coming back. We let a person at check-in know about Kingston. ‘Just tell the gate agent, everything will be fine,'” we were told, Smitley recalled.
The gate agent, however, told the family that a flight attendant had an issue about Kingston flying without a mask and the crew was checking with corporate. They were soon told that they wouldn’t be allowed to board.
“They took us out of view from everyone in the boarding area to tell us,” Smitley recalled.
Southwest refunded the cost of the tickets at the gate. The couple, who had to be back in Colorado for work and school, are both certified nurse assistants. They rented a vehicle at the airport in Salt Lake City and started driving.
“I drove until 1 a.m. and we stopped at a hotel in Grand Junction for a break,” Smitely said. “We drove the rest of the way racing against snowstorms that were hitting that area Monday afternoon.”
Between the car rental, hotel room and gas, it cost about $1,000 to make the drive home.
Southwest Airlines on Wednesday released a statement about the Smitely family being removed from their flight.
“The federal law requires each person, 2 years of age and older, to wear a mask at all times throughout the travel journey. 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. 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,” the statement said. “In this case, the family did not have an exemption to the federal mask mandate when traveling, and we regret any inconvenience they experienced during their journey. As always, we encourage travelers to review the mandatory policies and tools for support, such as the mask exemption option, prior to travel to foster a predictable travel experience.”
On April 30, a Northglenn family was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight, from Denver International Airport to Florida, after they disclosed that their 3-year-old son had a sensory disability, according to the boy’s mother, Caroline Scott. The captain of that flight ordered the family off the plane, despite the boy being buckled in and wearing a mask, Scott said.
In the Scott family’s instance, the airlines released a statement which read, in part: “Southwest Employees are working each day to ensure the requirements of the federal mask mandate with sensitivity during these challenging times. We appreciate the ongoing understanding and 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.”
Back home in Castle Rock, Smitley telephoned Southwest on May 12 to lodge a complaint, but he was on hold for 90 minutes. He hung up and filed a complaint online. It could take up to 30 days for Southwest to reply, he said.
“The anger has kind of died down,” Smitley said. “What we are trying to do now is prevent this from happening to others. Southwest needs to revisit its policies. It’s hard enough raising and caring for special needs kids. Making it harder to fly is not doing anyone any good.”
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