Southwest Airlines Won’t Allow Anyone To Fly Whose Disability Prevents Wearing A Mask

Effective Monday, July 27, Southwest Airlines will follow both United Airlines and American Airlines in requiring passengers to wear face masks not just on board their flights, but also throughout their time at the airport, “while checking in, boarding, in flight, deplaning, retrieving baggage, in the gate area, and any other time they may engage with a Southwest Employee or another Customer.”

According to an internal memo the airline is onto the tricks customers are using to pretend to comply with the mask requirement, defining that what has to be placed over “an individual’s nose and mouth” is “a well-secured cloth or mask.” And taking off a mask “to eat, drink, or take medicine” should be “brief, and Customers should put their face covering back on as soon as possible.” (They’re looking at you, Ted Cruz.)

This policy now applies to all children two years old and older. Children younger than that are advised against wearing masks for safety reasons, child who are two or three may be challenging to get to keep their masks on where it’s difficult to explain to them why they’re wearing the mask or even what it is. This, too, follows a similar change at both United and American.

Of course “[c]ustomers should remove face coverings if a decompression event occurs and they are asked to use an oxygen mask.” That’s something airlines actually need to remind customers about during the safety briefing.

What’s most striking about their policy is that anyone with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask is not exempt but instead may not fly. According to the internal document,

Due to the Safety risk posed by someone not wearing a mask, we are not able to allow any other exemptions at this time, including those for disabilities or medical conditions. If a Customer cannot travel safely while wearing a mask, the Customer will be refused transportation.

In other words, effective July 27, 2020, if a Customer is unable to wear a face covering for any reason (even a verifiable disability or medical condition), we regret that we will be unable to transport him/her at this time, due to the safety risk of COVID-19 transmission by Customers without face coverings. This includes any Customer who is unable to remove the mask without assistance. (In a future version of this policy, Southwest will review and consider the possibility of transporting a Customer who is willing to wear the mask but who is unable to remove the mask without assistance, so long as he/she is accompanied by a “safety assistant,” as described in the DOT regulation governing safety assistants — 14 CFR 382.29.)

Now, the airline doesn’t want to actually divert flights over this. If a customer boards with a mask but won’t wear it once the plane has been cleared for departure, “[c]rew should follow our existing policies for managing Customer misconduct. The Customer should be notified they will be met by Station Leadership when the flight arrives at its destination.”

I’ve uploaded Southwest’s full internal memo here (.pdf).

The new American Airlines policy is actually similar to Southwest’s ‘no exceptions to mask wearing’, they just didn’t say it in their news release which is odd, though the release seemed poorly drafted generally.

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. HUUUGE violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act!!!!

    Lawsuits are probably already in the works. Super dumb!

  2. Why does government and business develop all these rules when no one enforces them? I work in a government office. Masks are required. Only a few wear them. Go figure.

  3. I have always been curious as to why those who claim they cannot wear a mask due to medical condition do not wear a face shield. Are there any medical conditions that prevent wearing a face shield?

  4. The ADA requires that accommodations be made unless doing so causes an undue burden on the company. Any exception to the mask mandate is dangerous to crew and other passengers, and building isolated pods for those without masks is impractical; therefore, the blanket rule should apply. Hopefully the law will see it that way.

  5. I’ve been wondering whether airlines would go this route for a while now.

    Except I thought that the argument would come from a different direction: that a passenger who is truly medically incapable of wearing a mask would be equally unable to wear an oxygen mask if the cabin depressurized, and thus the airline cannot transport the passenger.

  6. As a disability attorney, we have been having a field day with these companies doing things this… I’ll be set to retire 5 times over after the end of all of this! There is absolutely no verifiable burden to the airline to accommodate the disabled guests. Their best argument is that it endangers their employees and other customers… but that defense is shot because their own policies require masks be worn by others to make them safe.

    On another note, saw on the news the other night that most people who are experiencing symptoms no longer feel a need to actually stay home… they’ve been trained to think that their masks are keeping them from spreading their germs and that others don’t have to worry about it either because they are also wearing a mask!

  7. @Amazing Larry
    Do you think it’s possible Southwest had a lawyer or two look at this policy? They ain’t that dumb.

  8. @JL100 United and American have taken the same stance. I guess “Spirit” does mirror some of Southwest’s route map. I just don’t know why they don’t just limit passengers to those that have essential travel much like essential jobs. People are so scared to die that they wear a mask like it’s bullet proof but yet still fly for leisure purposes. I guess much like leaving middle seats open to prevent the spread of Covid19.

  9. Mask exceptions will be abused just as the service animal designation was abused. I can’t think (and yes, I’m a physician) of any condition that would preclude wearing a simple surgical mask and yet allow a patient to safely fly aboard a commercial aircraft. If they are extremely claustrophobic, for example, they would not be safe in the event of a decompression.

  10. It is being discussed in the medical literature. There are no absolute contraindications to wearing a mask excepting stupidity. There is no drop in oxygen saturation or increased CO2 retention. No reasonable doctor would provide such a note, nor would they for many of the disabled car placards that exist for those who really don’t qualify for them in any responsible way. It is disrespectful to those with real disabilities.

  11. Interesting how the people in Asia manage to all wear masks when required but a number of us can’t manage.

  12. Sure there will be lawsuits over this type of policy, but Southwest and American will win those lawsuits. There is NO discrimination here. People either wear masks to fly or they are considered medically unfit to fly given Covid. That is very easy and easy to defend. I SUPER support this policy. If they take their masks off during flight they need to be arrested, not just met by a station manager. They need to be banned from every flying Southwest again. Period.

  13. Totally agree with the policy and I also wonder why can’t they put on a face shield? Most of these are people who just don’t want to wear a mask, period.

  14. Plenty of disorders that wearing a mask can cause issues, Parents or persons with Autism SD, Anxiety, PTSD, etc. Which would need to be accommodated.

    Can’t wait to see the first heavy handed, over-zealous FA, get captured on video over an autistic or special needs child. That refuses to keep a mask on in flight.

    FWIW, I think masks help control the spread, but I also think that they can also give a false sense of security, and people will wear them, but so often pull them down to talk etc. Thankfully in Oregon we have the option in most places to wear a face shield to be in compliance. Which as a physical barrier, should do an effective job of slowing the spread with most aerosolized droplets when talking, coughing, physically stopped or directed straight down.

  15. @YoniPDX Are you advocating that the rule that autistic or special needs child must keep their pants and underwear on should also be removed? Because if autistic or special needs child can be trained to keep their pants and underwear on, they can definitely be trained to keep a thin piece of cloth on.

    Use your brain and stop blindly following divisive political propaganda.

  16. @Angela

    face shields work for face-to-face interaction. face shields would actually be worse on an airplane because it will redirect exhaled air out to the sides, directly towards neighboring passengers..

  17. @Jake

    Hi Jake.. Do people breathe about of their chest? Do they breathe out of their stomach? Do they breathe out of their arms? Feet? Legs? Crotch? Do they breathe out of their asses? Do they talk out of their ass? No.. I didn’t think so. Stop comparing clothing over a part of the body that people don’t breathe out of to a fucking face mask. Humans were not meant to cover the area we breathe out of to get oxygen.

    *Please your brain and stop following divisive political propaganda.

  18. I guess these airlines didn’t get the message. ADA came out that only 9,210 people actually died of Covid-19 alone, if we can even believe those figures. I would like to see some lawsuits filed against these companies whereby they can demand people wear medical devices, healthy people, in order to fly. Since when did airlines become your doctor. I would also like to see the pros and cons in wearing a mask that does not prevent the spread of a virus – see product label on box. This whole scene to create a New World Order and taking away peoples rights needs to end now. Frankly, if I need to travel I would rather drive than fly and wear a mask that makes me dizzy and deprives me of much needed oxygen. And remember people, the airlines are being bailed out on tax payer dollars.
    Shame on them for imposing such rules and denying people with disabilities the ability to travel by air.

  19. I just flew Southwest , I flew United back because their staff would not wear the mask properly . Only around the mouth . He was breathing all over the waters he served

  20. I have an I.T. customer who has documented severe fybromyalgia in her face. It is extremely painful for her to wear either any type of mask or face shield. Thanks to COVID-19, she was unable to leave her house for 14 months. She could not legally enter a store due to the facemask mandate. She fortunately had neighbors who were willing to run her errands. She lives solely on Social Security, and is not well off financially.

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