• The family was turned away from the flight Sunday
  • The child is nonverbal and has a sensory processing disorder
  • The family’s lawyer said the airline violated the Americans with Disabilities Act

An Iowa couple said they are planning to legally challenge Southwest Airlines after they were refused boarding because their 5-year-old autistic son couldn’t wear his face mask.

Cody and Paige Petek and their two children were about to board a flight to their home in Des Moines when they were turned away because their autistic son, who is nonverbal and has a sensory processing disorder, struggled to wear his mask during their layover in St. Louis, NBC-affiliated WWBT-TV reported. The family was returning home from a vacation in Florida.

Other passengers who were on the flight tried to convince the crew into getting the family board. "They weren’t going to let the kid on the plane if he didn’t put this mask on. 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," Dr. Vince Hassel, a fellow passenger, told KCII.

In the middle of the chaos, the family said the child in question started having seizures, but his medication was on board the flight to Des Moines. The family said they had to rent a car and drive home to Des Moines, which took five and a half hours. It would have taken them an hour to reach home by flight.

Under Transportation Security Administration policy, travelers with disabilities who can’t wear a mask due to their condition aren’t required to use one.

Southwest Airlines declared on its website that "refusing to wear a mask is a violation of federal law and may result in denial of boarding."

The family’s attorney, Anthony Marchetti Jr., believes Southwest Airlines violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. "There's clear guidance from the department of transportation about what the airline should do," Marchetti Jr. told KCII. "None of that happened here."

"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," the airline told KCII in a statement. "In this case, a traveler was not wearing a face-covering prior to boarding and did not have an exemption to the federal mask mandate," the statement added.

The airline said it offered to pay the cost of the family’s stay in a hotel Sunday night before rebooking them on a new flight Monday to "allow them additional time to comply."

"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," the airline said in the statement given to KCII.

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