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Airlines Adjust Mask Rules to Accommodate Passengers With Disabilities

Ruthy Munoz

February 12th, 2021

The new federal mask mandate includes exemptions for passengers with disabilities, which have required airlines to modify their own rules to comply with government regulations.

Part of the requirements to be in compliance by mid-March includes airlines reviewing and revising as necessary their face mask policies immediately. 

Airlines operating flights in the U.S. are required to individually assess each passenger needing an exemption and provide them with reasonable accommodations if they are unable to wear masks.

Offering passengers with disabilities less-congested flight options, seating them in a less-crowded section of the plane or offering flights when the airport has fewer people are all alternatives that fulfill the reasonable accommodations. What airlines can no longer do is deny ban someone from flying who meets the criteria for the masks exemptions.

In fact, the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (OACP) has received complaints from persons asserting they have a disability that precludes their wearing a mask, and who contend that they were denied transport by an airline under a “no exceptions allowed” mask policy, prior to the mask mandate going into effect, said Blane Workie, OACP assistant general counsel in a notice sent to airlines. 

“Of course, if a passenger says I can’t wear masks, I can’t wear any kind of face covering, airlines could ask them if they could wear a face shield and have them available to hand out, because face shields are not as tight on the face,” suggested Rebecca Williams, lead specialist with the South East ADA Center, part of the Syracuse University. 

The South East ADA Center, while not part of the federal government, is one of 10 nationwide centers providing information, guidance and training on how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While Williams suggestion sounds reasonable, it may not comply with strict CDC acceptable masks requirements and may shed some insight on why the exemption allows for disabled passengers to forego masks altogether. 

Prior to the CDC mask mandate, airlines and flight crews have been struggling with non-compliant and at times volatile passengers refusing to wear a mask. 

“Airlines have expressed concerns to OACP that a significant number of passengers may claim medical exemption from the mask requirements without an apparent credible basis,” Workie said. 

Noting that the CDC order allows airlines to impose requirements or conditions on a person requesting an exemption, “including requiring a person seeking an exemption to request an accommodation in advance, submit to medical consultation by a third party, provide medical documentation by a licensed medical provider, and/or provide other information as determined by the airline” he said.

Both JetBlue and United said customers who believe they meet the exemption criteria for face masks should reach out to the airline for further instructions. United said evaluations will be handled on a case-by-case basis. 

All Southwest customers two years of age and older must adhere to the federal mandate to wear a mask throughout their travel journey. Young children under the age of 2 are exempt,” said Southwest spokesperson Brian Parrish. “Per the federal mask mandate, there is now a narrow exception for specific types of disabilities that prevent a person from wearing a mask, and Southwest is currently finalizing its process for evaluating customer requests to travel with an exemption”

In order to qualify for an exemption on Alaska Airlines, passengers are required to call the airline’s dedicated accessible services line at least five days prior to departure to request a mask exemption. Additionally, guests must meet other strict requirements in order to fly without a mask on Alaska a spokesperson said.

“Customers who indicate they have an underlying condition that prevents them from wearing a mask are required to complete a “Clearance-To-Fly” process before being permitted to travel, for everyone’s safety,” a Delta Air Lines spokesperson said. “Upon arrival to the airport, a Delta gate agent will connect the customer with our third-party medical professional partners for a private consultation via phone.”

Delta which has had this procedure in place since the summer, requires a clearance-to-fly process for every trip. Its current mask policy is here.

American is asking customers with disabilities unable to wear a mask to notify the airline’s Special Assistance team at least 72 hours prior to departure to request an exemption from the requirement. 

“Exemptions will require documentation from a licensed health care provider, as well as proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from Covid-19. Additionally, American will update its guidelines for acceptable mask types to prohibit bandanas and gaiters,” an American spokesperson said.

Ruthy Munoz

February 12th, 2021

Photo credit:  Adobe Shutterstock / cunaplus

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