Achilles McKellar had flown on at least 10 flights without any issues over wearing a facemask ever since turning 2 years old, according to his father, Rand McKellar.
In those instances, flight crews gave Achilles, who has autism, an exception to the federal COVID-19 masking requirement for passengers 2 and older with little to no questions asked, Rand McKellar said.
That was until Wednesday, when an Alaska Airlines flight agent did not let Achilles aboard a flight out of Spokane International Airport to Seattle because of concerns the boy would not keep his mask on during the flight, McKellar alleged.
McKellar, a Spokane resident, said Achilles had flown on at least four other Alaska Airlines flights without a mask, including a recent return trip Tuesday. His wife, Belle, said she and her husband are avid rock climbers who “chase the good weather for sunny sport climbing.”
For this particular flight, however, Rand McKellar said he was told to call a number for possible rebooking and to request an exemption.
“It showed just a general lack of understanding for children with autism on the part of the airline,” he said. “Very inconsistent application of their standards because recently on this airline, he flew without comment.”
An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman said the airline could not comment on specific cases given the aspects involving the passengers’ personal health.
“In general, any passenger over the age of 2 is required to wear a mask in compliance with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s policies,” spokeswoman Cailee Olson said in an email. “If a guest is medically unable to wear a mask, they are welcome to apply for a mask exemption.”
The McKellars said the issue arose as they attempted to board their flight to Seattle en route to Mexico. Achilles was crying on his way to the gate, his parents said.
Rand McKellar said a check-in agent asked Achilles’ age. The McKellars explained Achilles’ autism when the agent said the boy would have to wear a mask since he’s 2, Belle McKellar said.
Another employee then got involved; Rand McKellar said the worker was apparently the agent’s manager.
After telling the McKellars that Achilles would not be able to board without a mask, flight agents explained that they could request an exemption – “a long process,” Rand McKellar recalls them saying, that they wouldn’t be able to accommodate for that flight.
“I thought that maybe one of their motivations was just that they didn’t want a crying child on the airplane,” Rand McKellar said, “and I think that’s absolutely ridiculous and pretty discriminatory against an autistic child who has a harder time calming himself down.”
The McKellars were also troubled that the rejection appeared solely at the discretion of the manager’s judgment.
“(The manager) just explained that children with autism don’t tend to wear their masks on a consistent basis and, therefore, he would not be allowed on the plane,” Belle McKellar said. “I had mentioned that we had flown with Alaska just the day before and multiple times in the past year, and she said that wasn’t their policy.
“I think if you know anything about autism at all, it’s very obvious,” she continued, “and that’s where our issue arose – that we felt that they knew he was autistic and that’s why they were not allowing us to board.”
The situation took place nearly two weeks before the federal mandate requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs is set to end April 19.
April is also recognized by advocates as Autism Acceptance Month.
Exceptions to the mask mandate are allowed for people with intellectual, developmental, cognitive or psychiatric disabilities that affect “the person’s ability to understand the need to remove a mask if breathing becomes obstructed,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People with severe sensory or mental health disabilities “who would pose an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others if required to wear a mask,” meanwhile, may be exempt on a case-by-case basis, according to the CDC.
People with autism are protected under the Air Carrier Access Act, which makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability.
For their part, the McKellars are willing to follow the mask mandate, Belle McKellar said.
“People with autism are very particular about body accessories, body jewelry being uncomfortable for them,” she said. “Most children with autism, it’s very difficult to even brush their hair or have a bath. Every piece of the process is difficult with them.”
Rand McKellar said while some airlines typically provide a link after booking tickets online to request accessibility accommodations, Alaska didn’t appear have an option relevant to autism.
“I’ve entered a note before and I’ve not entered a note before, and I’ve never run into a situation where they weren’t able to make this accommodation at the gate or during check-in,” Rand McKellar said. “The majority of flights we’ve taken, people don’t even ask.”
The McKellars are not the first to have an apparent conflict with an airline involving a passenger with autism over the COVID-19 mask mandate.
Notably, the father of a 4-year-old with autism from Florida filed a lawsuit last year against the CDC, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines over the airlines’ refusal to grant his son an exemption, according to MassLive Media. In that case, a U.S. District Court judge in February granted the child a 30-day mask exemption on planes, according to Newsweek.
Belle McKellar said the inconsistencies show that airlines need more awareness and training on accommodating passengers with autism.
“We just don’t want this to happen to other people,” she said. “It’s very hurtful to children. Even if they’re 2, they understand that they think it’s their fault, that everyone’s upset and we can’t proceed with our plans. I think that needs to change.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.