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Family Accuses Southwest of Removing Autistic Child Over Mask Policy

Family Accuses Southwest of Removing Autistic Child Over Mask Policy
Joe Cortez

A Texas family is accusing Southwest Airlines of refusing them service, when the mother of an autistic child would not wear a face mask aboard the flight. The family accuses Southwest of labeling them as “non-compliant” because the three-year-old toddler wouldn’t keep their face mask on.

A family of Texas flyers is calling foul against Southwest Airlines, saying the carrier treated them unfairly because their autistic child would not wear a face covering while on the aircraft. Houston ABC affiliate KTRK-TV reports the family says they were removed from their return flight over the incident.

Child Allegedly Labeled as “Non-Compliant” Over Face Mask Situation

According to the family, who asked to remain anonymous, a mother and child were flying back to Houston aboard Southwest after spending a week with family. After the boarding process was complete, the mother says a flight attendant asked her to put a face covering on her three-year-old child.

The family says their three-year-old suffers from autism and sensory processing disorders, which makes it difficult for the son to keep a face covering on. The mother attempted to put a mask on her child, but her son would not keep it on.

The flight attendant then allegedly informed the captain of the flight, who made the same request to the mother. When the toddler would not keep a facemask on, the mother said the captain returned to the gate, telling the aircraft a “non-compliant passenger” was aboard.

“We had to head back to the gate,” the mother told KTRK-TV. “They have an escort take us back to the plane to get all of our luggage off the plane, and then they proceeded to write up my 3-year-old for noncompliance to their policy.”

According to the mother, the incident caused Southwest to refuse the family service. She claims that the mask issue with her autistic son was not an issue when flying out to Midland, Texas to see family – and is now confused as to why the airline is taking a harder-line stance with her family.

“I agree with the mask policy,” the mother told KTRK. “I wear my mask everywhere I go. It’s not an issue, but you’ve got to have some kind of exemption, especially for people with disabilities, [and] kids with disabilities. I mean, no 3-year-old, who is autistic and has sensory processing disorder, is going to put anything on their face.

Southwest Stands by Their Tough Policy

In a statement to the television station, Southwest Airlines stood by their policy. Because it is communicated throughout the booking and check-in process, the airline says they were in the right to enforce their policy.

“Southwest Airlines requires all Customers over the age of two to wear a face covering or mask while traveling to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” the airline said in a statement. “We communicate this policy to all Customers at multiple touchpoints throughout the travel journey, so we regret any inconvenience this family experienced.”

Although they did not comment directly on the family’s situation, the airline said in their statement that customers who can’t wear a face covering “for any reason” will not be welcome aboard flights, and given full refunds. The policy is similar to other airlines, including Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines.

View Comments (57)


  1. cmd320

    August 11, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    This is only the beginning of these kinds of occurrences.

  2. chavala

    August 11, 2020 at 6:26 pm

    Then STAY HOME

  3. FlyingNone

    August 11, 2020 at 8:59 pm

    All of this “drama”, as usual, by Southwest Airlines. Within 24-48 hours they’ll reverse their stand due to all the bad press because they just can’t take the criticism. However, I am all for mask-wearing but an autistic three year old… no.
    This country is going to have to build courtrooms just for Covid-19 trials and hearings.

  4. Scudsone

    August 12, 2020 at 4:12 am

    Not sure what the problem is here. Wear a mask or don’t fly. They can drive next time. I understand it must be tough to travel with a disabled child, but if he refused to wear a shirt or pants, for instance, he’d also not be allowed to fly. A mask is no different.

  5. Leonardosf

    August 12, 2020 at 4:13 am

    There has to be some exceptions to the face mask policy. Southwest was in the wrong by requiring a child to wear a face mask. Small children can be difficult at times and the airline has to make exceptions. They failed in this case.

  6. D2travel

    August 12, 2020 at 4:19 am

    If her child will not/cannot wear a mask, then the mother should find alternative means of transportation. SW did nothing wrong in this case, their actions then and now continue to advocate for public health and safety.

  7. cherrib

    August 12, 2020 at 4:58 am

    I applaud Southwest for ensuring passengers are as safe as possible.

  8. nydisneykid

    August 12, 2020 at 5:40 am

    Tie that flight attendant and pilot to the plane and drag them

  9. MRM

    August 12, 2020 at 6:19 am

    She knew the rules prior to booking.
    She “agrees” with the rules.
    She also believes the rules shouldn’t apply to her son/family – just everyone else.

    Did I miss anything here?

    Instead of blaming the airlines, maybe the family should actually be accountable for their own self-entitlement?

  10. oh912flyer

    August 12, 2020 at 6:31 am

    Absolute idiocy. And a violation of Federal law. Get a lawyer, sue, win… no brainer because the airline permitted the child to fly the first direction.

  11. Orange County Commuter

    August 12, 2020 at 6:46 am

    Not sure why this is newsworthy. The airlines made the announcement “any reason” is pretty clear not “well we get an exception because of X” . If your family member can’t wear the mask then you probably need to consider driving!

  12. pdisme


    August 12, 2020 at 7:03 am

    Thank you Southwest.

  13. Global321

    August 12, 2020 at 7:20 am

    In most cases like this I would agree with the family, but, in the midst of a Pandemic, I think Southwest was right. Everyone needs to wear a mask. No exceptions. If you allow this child to not wear a mask, you are opening the door to others with real or imagined medical conditions to not wear masks. (Of course, this is real, but we have heard some whoopers from people claiming medical reasons for not wearing a mask.)

    The flight time – and associated events (check-in/baggage/security/boarding/deplaning/taxi/drive to airport/etc) is 4-5 hours. Drive time is less than 8 hours. All things considered, maybe driving would have been the better choice.

  14. Gynob001

    August 12, 2020 at 7:22 am

    I have to agree with the Airline. Regardless of the condition of the child, a virus is still a virus. The mother should not have exposed the child or other passengers to virus or any pathogen at this time.

  15. friedablass

    August 12, 2020 at 7:44 am

    First of all fix this line: “when the mother of an autistic child would not wear a face mask aboard the flight”. You make it sound like the mother refused to wear a mask.

    Secondly Southwest and other airlines should seriously rethink their 2+ age requirement for masks, and align it to Delta’s policy which is to enforce it only from around age 8 and up which makes way more sense. These people making these policies obviously have no kids. A 2 or 3 year old is not keeping a mask even when they are perfectly 100% normal, let alone if you have one that’s unfortunately disabled!

    Shame on Southwest for putting this poor mother through this. She already has enough on her plate without having to deal with this.

  16. overdahill

    August 12, 2020 at 7:58 am

    stupid is as stupid does, and why are there not some alternative equivalents for those with documented physical limitations?

    there are certainly many quasi mask devices that are sufficiently effective.

    the word is sufficiently effective!

    there are no human absolute rules where judgement and that discontinued concept called common sense should prevail.

    what you all say!

  17. mc4bbs


    August 12, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Thanks to Southwest for protecting everyone! Non-mask-wearing people can drive.

  18. PDog

    August 12, 2020 at 9:01 am

    A three year? With autism? The wanton cruelty that is being shown to each other, especially the disabled, during this pandemic event is appalling.

  19. Dougg

    August 12, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Southwest did the right thing. It just takes one person not wearing a mask to infect if they have the virus. We just had 25 people die and 130 test positive in a care facility just a few miles away. It’s going to take all of us working together to stop the spread of the virus. Shame on this mother for being so selfish as not to care about the health and safety of others.

  20. Auscal

    August 12, 2020 at 9:18 am

    The mask requirement is stated multiple times while booking. Whoever booked the flight should have taken notice.

  21. EasternTraveler

    August 12, 2020 at 9:38 am

    Good job Southwest. Disability is not an excuse. Your problem, you deal with it, don’t ask others to suffer.

  22. DFW_Airwolf


    August 12, 2020 at 9:53 am

    We need the FAA to step up or someone with authority to either give the Airlines the Muscle they are usng agaiknst us or Slap them Down over it. I support the latyter. But Typical Pol;itics has them doing nothing. Hopefully the airlines end up losing more Billions over this Stupid Mask Issue,

  23. azmojo

    August 12, 2020 at 10:22 am

    I hope they file an ADA claim against Southwest. There has to be reasonable exemptions, and that 3 year old was a threat to no one.

  24. Morgacj2004

    August 12, 2020 at 11:10 am

    If I was an attorney I would be all over this. Big lawsuit. Also involve the ADA. The Captain is an idiot to turn a plane around for this !

  25. arcticflier

    August 12, 2020 at 11:14 am

    The lack of empathy found here on this forum for a 3-year-old autistic child is disgusting.

    I truly hope there really is such a thing as Karma.

  26. Athina

    August 12, 2020 at 11:19 am

    Virus: I’m going to infect this child, since he doesn’t wear a mask
    Mom: You can’t, he doesn’t wear a mask because he’s autistic
    Virus: Sorry, I didn’t know, I’ll leave him alone

  27. PattiW

    August 12, 2020 at 11:37 am

    The ADA does NOT extend to airlines. Do some research before claiming that. The airlines operate under ACAA.

    While airlines aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of disabilities, they are allowed to refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability if that person would be inimical to the safety of the flight:

  28. MRM

    August 12, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    If you have travel issues (infants, challenged children/adults, etc.) then you have to understand in times of a pandemic that it’s hard for everyone to be as forgiving as they may be otherwise. Doing the wrong thing on purpose and then demanding an apology for your own behavior reeks of arrogance and entitlement. Gross. Kids have always been transmitters of germs/bacteria/viruses/etc.

    Perhaps determine if the trip is 100% necessary – and if so, explore ALL forms of travel in which you may travel without a mask. Good luck on finding any public form of transportation without a mask requirement.

  29. MiscMel70

    August 12, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    Question to ask: Can autistic children be infected with and transmit COVID? If that answer is yes then I’m confused as to why this is an issue. The child should be required to wear a mask.
    My heart goes out to families that struggle to manage day to day with children with these struggles. Having said that, what about the rights of the person sitting one row up who may have preexisting conditions or the person who is on their way back home to their elderly parents? As someone mentioned above, the real issue is parents/people who think a plane full of people should be flexible to their personal situation.

    My nephew is non-verbal autistic, with periodic outburst and he doesn’t understand to cover his mouth when coughing or sneezing. He is almost 30. His parents drive everywhere.

  30. Orange County Commuter

    August 12, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    Oh yes the file an ADA suit. Of course if you have actually read the ADA you will discover “reasonable accommodations that do NOT harm others” are required. Case closed. But I am sure an attorney will take the suit for a fee.

    The airlines are within the law, the entitled aren’t.

    The ADA does not give you the right to infect anyone with a potentially deadly disease!

  31. jrpallante

    August 12, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    It’s sad that so many common taters do not understand the usefulness of masks. Are these the same people who fall for vaccine conspiracies, so that once-conquered diseases can make a comeback?. In any event, this child is clearly not competent to fly in the current environment, and the mother had plenty of warning. Next time, you should drive to Midland, or maybe let your friends from Midland come visit you in Houston.

  32. lil Gophee

    August 12, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    Great job Southwest! This is all about everyone’s safety and we should not be held hostage by people who can’t follow the rules. Pick an airline that doesn’t enforce, take the train, taxi, or car. Don’t like it? Start your own airline yourself and make up any rule that suits you. No one wants your germs and you don’t want anyone’s else. I am not going to wear a mask and be inconvenienced just so a person can claim the privilege of not wearing one.

    The entire flight was delayed because of this.

  33. lyst

    August 12, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Amazing to make a 3 year old wear a mask when the airlines don’t even insure the social distancing! Does covid just go away when people take off the masks to sip their water and eat? How many are even wearing their masks correctly? A very harsh way to treat a 3 year old!!

  34. sukki007

    August 12, 2020 at 8:10 pm

    I’m very conflicted about this. As an older person with some compromising conditions, I have been strictly self-quarantining since March 13. I did have to go for one necessary doctor appointment, and was close to hysterical about it. I had my daughter and grandson visit me starting at the end of May, and Southwest then was letting many people go maskless on the second leg of their flights. They both wore masks and quarantined for two weeks before they came into my house. My grandson is high-functioning autistic with many sensory issues, but he’s 14 and wearing a mask wasn’t a problem. The airline was much stricter on their return flights two weeks ago. But what I don’t understand is really, what is the big difference between a two- and three-year old? They’re both germy, as any teacher can tell you. To me it’s an arbitrary cut-off point. Yes, the mom should have driven if she knew he wouldn’t wear a mask. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit near him. But I wouldn’t want to sit near a two-year-old either, who wouldn’t have to wear one. Not that I’m getting on a plane anytime soon, even though I must.

  35. mvoight

    August 12, 2020 at 8:31 pm

    I personally hate wearing a mask.
    That said, ADA does no apply, which is why you don’t see wide lavatory doors and aisle being required
    ACAA applies to airline travel. However, it doesn’t not require the airline to force other passengers to be at risk to accommodate someone.
    As the goal is to risk exposure to other passengers, then I believe the airline was right to enforce a stated requirement. Failure to do so would have left the airline open to legal action for exposing the other passengers, because it did not follow its stated policy for masks.
    If an airline creates a policy, they are legally obligated to follow it.

  36. flyerCO

    August 13, 2020 at 4:43 am

    Problem is federal law, the ACAA requires WN to make exceptions. It actually goes as far as to say they can only deny transport if a person posses a direct threat. Which without any proof of the child having CV19 cant be shown.

    Even trained CROs (employees the law requires to be trained in ACAA) have stated they know legally they’re in wrong. However the airline has decided it is worth the risk to violate the law.

  37. tromboneboss

    August 13, 2020 at 4:59 am

    I think everyone is missing the main problem here. They let the family fly out without the boy wearing a mask. They only complained about it on the return trip, totally leaving the family in a bind. If you’re going to stand by your policy then Southwest should have said something at the home airport before they left. This will be an easy disability lawsuit to win.

  38. NonnaGoes

    August 13, 2020 at 6:31 am

    I’m on the spectrum. I have adult kids on my he spectrum. And I also understand neurotypical 3 year olds. Nobody at that age, who hasn’t gotten acclimated to wearing something, will wear it.

    I don’t know how severe his sensory disorders are. But had the mother and father found a fabric he could tolerate, made a game out of putting it on their own faces, and their masks on him, he would have been better prepared.

    SW messed up by letting him on the the flight out. And his parents failed him by not working with his issues to find a way for him to deal with wearing a mask.

    Also, for future reference, SW: most of us on the spectrum don’t do well with people hovering over us. I can verbalize my discomfort and ask you to step back. A very small child can only act out.

  39. MojaveFlyer

    August 13, 2020 at 6:35 am

    SW did the right thing. The more stories like this I hear, the sooner I’ll be back on board myself.

  40. DeltaFlyer123

    August 13, 2020 at 7:46 am

    Southwest is technically right, but treating an autistic 3-year old this way is not humane. Even in these times of stress, we should not set aside our humanity.

  41. Dougg

    August 13, 2020 at 8:26 am

    Are autistic children required to wear seatbelts? Of course they are, It’s for the their safety and the safety of everyone on the plane. Same four face masks,

  42. exp lewis

    August 13, 2020 at 11:41 am

    An elderly person catching Covid-19 on that plane and dying will be just as dead if he/she caught it from a toddler or a drunk 30-year-old QAnon supporter. Thank you, Southwest!

  43. Gynob001

    August 13, 2020 at 11:42 am

    Child can’t wear mask doesn’t fly! How about seat belts? Floatation devices? Oxygen masks?

  44. Gizzabreak

    August 13, 2020 at 12:08 pm

    Autism. The catch all ‘condition’, regardless of age, for non compliance with anything. Of course three year olds don’t ‘understand’, so parents assume TOTAL responsibility for their offspring’s ‘condition’.

  45. dginil

    August 13, 2020 at 2:54 pm

    The policy is clear and they were right to do it. They and other airlines will also deplane an unruly child (or adult) who refuses to take their seat at time of pushback — for the child’s safety but as much for the safety of others asthey can be emergency exit obstructions or flying projectiles. I have seen it done, and my own grandchild in full tantrum, at the age of 3, was within seconds of getting her family kicked off. The fact that a child or adult is autistic or has another condition that keeps them from complying with rules for all passenger and crew safety is never an excuse to exempt them.

  46. dginil

    August 13, 2020 at 3:07 pm

    Btw, tromboneboss, a failure to, or decision not to, enforce a published rule or law does not exempt later compliance with that rule or law. While the family maybe would have have benefited if they had been stopped at their home airport, the rule was open and clear and they took the risk — got away with it once, but not the next time. This SWA not enforcing on the first route will have absolutely no legal bearing on any disability based lawsuit.

  47. SkyIsKing

    August 13, 2020 at 3:12 pm

    I am going to side with Southwest on this one. It’s a safety issue. If the parents can’t control the child, they don’t fly period. At 37,000 ft, non-compliance is not an option. Flying on any air carrier is not a right and subject to said flyers meeting all regulations. Nope, refund the money, and keep them on the ground.

  48. fof9l

    August 13, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    I’m quite surprised at the general tone of most of the comments on this thread, which can really be summarised as “if your three-year-old kid can’t wear a mask, you shouldn’t have flown”. I hope all your correspondents are as virtuous and strict about following regulations in cases of carrying firearms through airports, for example, or drinking to excess on a flight and endangering other passengers with an entitled approach.

    Most of your correspondents will be glad to know that neither I nor anyone in our family will be flying Southwest, or indeed, any US airline, in the future. I’ll happily spend my tourist dollars outside your country, thanks very much.

  49. mrspilot


    August 13, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    No mask, no flight–SWA rightfully denied flight. I don’t understand why the Mom didn’t plan to drive in the first place, knowing ahead of time her child wearing a mask may be an issue.

  50. tromboneboss

    August 14, 2020 at 10:41 am

    dginil. No I’m sorry you were incorrect. I’m assuming both flights are on the same itinerary. Southwest is not allowed to change the terms of the contract midway through executing the contract.This boy had a documented medical condition that Southwest knew about when accepting the contract.Midway through the contract Southwest tried to claim the boy was a medical risk with no evidence. They did not know if he was a carrier or not. They never did a test.Southwest refusal to make accommodations for the disability without evidence is a clear violation of the ACAA. This case will likely be settled quietly. This information is from a Family attorney who deals with special education law.

  51. PattiW

    August 14, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    Lololol at not being able to change “the terms of the contract”.

    Airlines change times, dates, aircraft even cancel. Good luck with the “but muh contract” excuse”.

  52. lisah101

    August 17, 2020 at 8:54 am

    SW absolutely did the right thing. I understand how some people say there should be exceptions but remember WHY we are wearing masks – to stop the spread of a worldwide pandemic. Just becuase someone is autistic or has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t spread COVID-19. I absolutely believe there should not be exemptions as every person who isn’t wearing a mask is potentially spreading the disease and in close confines like an airplane, we don’t have any recourse to stay away from someone not wearing protection gear such as a mask.

    The mother did not provide any evidence the child had a negative COVID-19 test. At this point, I’d feel safer on an airline if we assume everyone is infected but taking precautions. I don’t want to sit near ANYONE who isn’t wearing a mask and has no documentation they are COVID free. In healthcare we assume everyone is infected and I think the same premise is smart in all walks.

  53. rundmc

    August 17, 2020 at 11:09 am

    Wow. A lot of no-sicence-reading sheep on this thread. Masks do nothing to protect you. They are PLACEBOS people – look up the definition since I doubt most people on this thread know what that means. I’m going to laugh heartily about a year from now when the CDC is forced to admit that masks do more harm than good and there are thousands, if not millions of people with compromised immune systems from lack of oxygen and breathing in their own carbon dioxide for hours on end. I wouldn’t think I would take delight in others misery, but the self-righteousness and finger-wagging displayed by so many Gladys Kravitz’s who don’t know what they are talking about has turned me into that person. Do your own research and stop taking medical advice from politicians and bureaucrats.

  54. MRM

    August 18, 2020 at 7:39 am

    rundmc and tromboneboss: LOL! You’re willingness to dive head-first into an empty pool of legal advice has given me pause to smile – thanks for brightening our days!

    “Masks don’t work…”
    “Can’t change the term of carriage…”

    Happy Tuesday!

  55. Pirrito

    August 18, 2020 at 11:07 am

    Thank you rundmc! Finally some sanity in these comments.

  56. rundmc

    August 18, 2020 at 5:27 pm

    MRM – don’t know where you got legal advice from my comment, but thanks for playing. (From this lawyer who practices in CA and DC). Sometimes things are just based in common sense and making up one’s own mind too. Although I know that’s in rare supply these days.

  57. gstogm1114

    August 24, 2020 at 8:54 am

    Thank you Southwest! I feel bad for the child and parents, but the rule is the rule. They acknowledge the rule. The virus doesn’t care if the child is 3 and autistic. If the child were infected and I got it from him or her, would I be ok because the person I caught it from was autistic?

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