Family Denied Flight Home Because Autistic Son Can’t Wear Mask

Southwest Airlines is receiving criticism after one of their flight crews refused to allow a family of four to board the flight because their five-year-old autistic son could not wear a mask.

After a vacation in Florida, Cody and Paige Petek were about to board a flight home to Des Moines, Iowa, with their two children. At their layover in St. Louis, Missouri, however, something unexpected happened.

The family was stopped as they were about to get on their flight because their son, Keaton, wasn’t wearing a mask. They explained that the five-year-old boy has nonverbal autism and a sensory processing disorder, so he cannot tolerate a mask very well, but the crew refused to allow them on board the connecting flight unless he wore one.

Photo: Facebook/Cody Petek

Dr. Vince Hassel, who was also flying to Des Moines, says he witnessed other passengers lobbying to get Keaton on board the flight. The crew, however, refused to allow it, saying it was “their policy” that everyone over the age of two must wear a mask.

“They weren’t going to let the kid on the plane if he didn’t put this mask on,” says Dr. Hassel. “He kind of had a bandana around his neck, and he just wasn’t having it and throwing a fit. Just to watch this play out was absolutely horrible.”

Keaton’s family tried to get him to wear his bandana over his nose and mouth, but he didn’t fully understand what was going on and couldn’t handle the feeling of the cloth on his face.

Photo: Facebook/Paige Petek

At some point, as the situation continued to play out and the Peteks continued to try to gain access to their flight, the five-year-old boy apparently began to have a seizure. The family was not allowed access to his medication, which was already on the flight, so they had to make do without it.

In the end, the Petek family was forced to rent a car and drive nearly six hours home rather than take their one-hour flight to Des Moines.

After the whole ordeal, the Petek family decided to challenge Southwest’s unfair policy, which they believe violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. The TSA agrees that people with disabilities who cannot wear a mask are exempt from having to wear one in airports or on airplanes.

Photo: Facebook/Paige Petek

“There’s clear guidance from the Department of Transportation as to what the airlines should do. None of that happened here,” says Anthony L. Marchetti Jr., the Peteks’ lawyer.

In a statement, Southwest cited the federal law requiring everyone over two years of age to wear a mask during travel. The airline “considers applications for exemptions” for passengers with disabilities, but Keaton “did not have an exemption.”

Photo: Facebook/Paige Petek

The airline says employees offered the Peteks a hotel so they could try again another day. When the family chose to drive home, the airline gave them a full refund on their flight.

We hope that this case will be an eye-opener for airlines and other industries that deal with people with disabilities, especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. People with autism are people too, and they deserve to be able to fly regardless of their ability to wear a mask.

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