Family shocked by dispute over flight after son with autism struggled with mask

Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 1:17 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 20, 2021 at 1:19 AM CDT
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ST. LOUIS (KMOV) - A family says they had trouble boarding their Southwest flight out of St. Louis because their 17-year-old son, who has autism, was struggling with his mask. They were ultimately rebooked on a different flight.

Lashaunda Jethro spent the weekend visiting family in St. Louis with her husband and 17-year-old son, Trey, who has autism and is nonverbal. Their flight to the city went well, but it was a different story when they tried to board their return flight to Long Beach, California.

Jethro says flying with Trey is already challenging, and masking adds another level of difficulty.

“He’s autistic. He has a hard time, so he’s nonverbal. But he’s a joy. I can’t imagine my life without him,” she said. “He will not keep a mask on his face. We have tried and tried. He just won’t do it.”

The Jethros were flying Southwest, and the airline has exemptions for masking, including for passengers with disabilities. The passenger or guardian has to fill out a form requesting the exemption in addition to having a doctor’s note.

“We get to the door of the plane, and the flight attendant is like ‘No, he can’t come on. He got to wear a mask.’ I got my phone out, pulled out the doctor’s letter, and she was like, ‘Well, no, this has to come from corporate, and you have to do this before you get on the plane,’” Jethro said.

Jethro, who is a nurse practitioner herself, says she told flight attendants the whole family is fully vaccinated and tried to show them her son’s vaccination card.

After going back and forth with the airline, Jethro says they finally were allowed to board. But when they sat down, she was asked to get back off.

“Here comes the manager again, and she’s like, ‘I need you to come with me.’ And I’m like, ‘For what?’... And my husband’s like, ‘Well, do we all have to get off the plane?’ She’s like, ‘No, you and your son can go, but she has to come off,’” Jethro said.

Southwest said in a statement that Jethro was asked to deplane after a conversation with flight attendants and not complying with the mask mandate. An airline spokesperson says the mother wasn’t wearing her mask at one point during the conversation with attendants.

Jethro says she always wears a mask. Though the one she wore to the airport was too big and kept falling off, she says she kept re-adjusting to make sure it covered her face. The airline’s spokesperson disputes her claim.

“I don’t know. I’m just still so in shock and just so amazed that this happened. It’s like what else can I do? I don’t know what else to do besides call corporate. What do we need to do to make sure we’re doing the right thing?” Jethro said.

Ultimately, the entire family was rebooked on a Monday morning flight.

Their luggage, including Trey’s needed medication, was on the earlier plane, and Jethro says she hasn’t been able to contact anyone at the airport in Long Beach.

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