Southwest Kicks Family Off Flight When Passengers Think Daughter Has Lice

Southwest refused to take a family to Disney World yesterday after other passengers in the gate area suspected that their 6 year old daughter might have lice.

The family says she just had a very dry scalp from the cold Chicago winter. Their “luggage, car seat and winter coats” left Chicago Midway without them as checked luggage in that cold Chicago winter.

According to Southwest,

their gate agents were approached by several customers “with concerns about a fellow passenger in the gate area exhibiting behavior consistent with a highly contagious medical condition.”

“After our conversation with the family, we determined it would be best to rebook their travel for another day,” the statement continued. “We regret any inconvenience delayed travel has caused the family and will continue to work with them directly.”

The family has been rebooked to see Mickey today. So Southwest ultimately has no concerns about their flying, they were kicked off the flight purely out of fear rather than any actual risk.

In July Delta refused to allow a family to take their connecting flight in Minneapolis after they discovered lice on their child midway through their inbound transactlantic flight. They were told they had to leave the airport, seek medical attention, and return with a doctor’s note.

When I was a child kids with lice were supposed to stay home from school. Now however the National Institutes of Health does not recommend this. Lice do not spread disease. Children can have lice for weeks without symptoms. Lice is something frequently misdiagnosed. So you treat it and continue normal routines.

I do not want to fly next to passengers with lice, just like I don’t want to fly next to passengers with cold or flu. And I don’t want employees in a lounge coming to work with the flu and serving food.

However most of the time someone is sick, or has lice, I don’t even know it.

One of the reasons for covering these sorts of events is because there are lessons embedded about travel that we can all learn from. I don’t always make those lessons explicit.

It would be great if ‘an airline revised its policy’ but Southwest Airlines has over 50,000 employees (American Airlines by the way has over 100,000). Not every employee will know and follow every policy. Decisions are made by people they are made in the moment and often those people lack the best information but are trying to do the best they can given competing priorities (sometimes self-serving priorities or priorities which we might prefer were different).

With the number of people traveling, interacting with the number of employees across the number of flights poor choices get made and as often than not it will ‘hose’ the individual traveler. Getting compensation out of a large bureaucracy set up to refuse to admit fault and minimize cost can frequently be frustrating, it’s only better customers, lucky customers, nicer customers and those who raise the cost through media attention that may get made whole — if such a thing is even possible.

In general I’m a fan of self help (not waiting on an airline to provide lodging for instance and sending the bill to a credit card’s trip delay coverage), being nice (because usually a given problem isn’t an individual airline employee’s fault), and finding other employees to be helpful when the first one isn’t (at the check-in desk, the gate, customer service, the phone, twitter, or a lounge).

Here that wouldn’t have helped. And that’s a lesson too.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. There’s nothing illegal or immoral in a country where a guy who admits to being a sexual predator is elected president (and supports an accused pedophile for senator)…

  2. The problem with airplane pax with head lice is that they will likely leave some lice and lice eggs on the headrest, thereby infecting the next pax. This is more common than most are aware of.

  3. You know what’s sad? People who are so obsessed with politics that they have to inject it into everything.

  4. See something, say something? If I see someone coughing and sneezing and they seem to have the flu — which is much more contagious in the closed space on the plane, and for older people can be lethal — should I say something? And if I say that I think so and so has the flu, will the agent take them off the plane? Both lice and flu require a doctor to make the diagnosis. A gate agent can’t do that. So, should there be a doctor at every airport on call to make such calls. This is all getting ridiculous. I too have wondered about lice on the head rest from a prior passengers. I bet they don’t disinfect the seats between flights. In the old days they used to change the tissue or cloth covers on the headrests in both planes and trains, but I haven’t seen that done in years. I think the gate agent was wrong, but I bet he has the power to do what he did even though he cannot legally diagnose lice. What a complicated world.

  5. So are you saying that passengers were removed from a flight, but their checked luggage was not? Is this sloppy state of affairs official airline policy?

  6. @CoolHandLuke

    Happens all the time domestically. Positive bag matching not required now that all bags are x-rayed. If you cancel late (you have until T-10 on Southwest discount fare) or don’t board, your bag will still fly.

  7. If I ever need to fly while appearing ill, I will just wait in another area, and board right before the gate closes. Considering that Ebola carriers were on planes for hours and hours, and we didn’t see a widespread outbreak, I think it will be difficult to be paranoid.
    What if your comfort animal has dander and an asthma patient notices? Do you need a clearance from the vet or does the asthma patient get rebooked?

  8. I remember when my daughter (who is very clean), and her whole 2nd grade class caught head lice. The teachers at the school identified the infection and sent the children home and fumigated. The pediatrician wouldn’t let us in the office, because he was afraid that we would infect all the toys in his office. The lice shampoo kills the lice but does not kill the eggs.

    We spent several days picking little white lice eggs (“nits”) out of her hair. These eggs are so small that they are almost invisable. One woman got so frustrated, that she gave her girl a baldy hair cut. No hair, no nits. The school re-inspected every day and sent kids with nits home. What a nightmare. Eventually the infection ended was defeated. If a lice was to lay eggs on an airplane seat, it would not be good.

    I think any parent or teacher that has had dealt with this issue would be able to identify it. It does not need a doctor to diagnose. I think if air personal were to see nits or head lice on a child, they should probably not let that child fly.

  9. Except they were going to Disneyland, not Disney World, they were flying to Santa Ana, not Orlando, and the flight they were rebooked on was for two days later.

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