The Petek family were due to fly from St Louis, Missouri, to Des Moines, Iowa, in the US when the incident occurred earlier this week.
Cody and Paige Petek's non-verbal son, who has autism and a sensory processing disorder, struggled to wear his mask. In response, the family was told they couldn’t fly, and were instead forced to hire a car and drive for more than six hours to get home.
The airline said it was following federal laws which state that all passengers over the age of two must wear a mask on flights, unless they are medically exempt, reports KCCI.
Paige shared her frustration in an impassioned Facebook post, writing: “Crazy way to end our vacation… after a $1,700 trip to Florida and back through Southwest Airlines, three flights later we were denied access onto our last flight home because Keaton was not able to keep his mask over his face due to his severe sensory issues and autism.”
She claimed the family was escorted out by police and asked: “What happened to accommodate people with special needs?”
“Now we are driving six hours home to Des Moines with two tired children and two very anxious parents,” she added. “Southwest should be ashamed of their employees and service.”
“He just wasn't having it and throwing a fit. Just to watch this play out was absolutely horrible,” fellow passenger Vince Hassel, who witnessed the incident, told KCCI.
The Peteks have hired a lawyer, Anthony Marchetti Jr., who says the airline may have acted in contravention of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“There's clear guidance from the department of transportation about what the airline should do. None of that happened here,” he said.
A Southwest spokesperson told KCCI: “While we regret any inconvenience this family experienced while traveling, federal law requires each person, two years of age and older, to wear a mask at all times throughout the travel journey... To assist travellers with disabilities, there is a narrow exception to the mask mandate for specific types of disabilities that prevent a person from wearing a mask.
“Southwest Airlines considers 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... In this case, a traveller was not wearing a face covering prior to boarding and did not have an exemption to the federal mask mandate.
“Southwest Employees tried to assist the family by encouraging the child's face covering be placed over the mouth and nose. Once the family was unable to meet the federal requirement, Southwest offered the family a hotel for the night and to rebook them on a flight today to allow them additional time to comply. Instead, the family chose not to fly and was granted a full refund.
“It's the responsibility of Southwest employees to enforce federal regulations. 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 during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.”