8-year-old boy with autism not allowed to board Southwest flight after mask confusion

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RICHFIELD, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Mask confusion at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has left a father and son from Richfield grounded  after Southwest Airlines wouldn't allow the boy on a flight.

"We were flying out of O'Hare and got denied," explained Megan Kitze-Ward. "I just wanted to be prepared. I didn't want the flight attendants to think my kid was being a jerk."

The kid that Kitze-Ward is referring to is her 8-year-old son, Max. He is diagnosed with autism and, according to his doctor, can have difficulties wearing a mask.

Kitze-Ward tells CBS 58 that she, her husband, Matt, their daughter, Cali, and Max all arrived at the airport gate early Tuesday morning. Max was not wearing a mask.

"We got to the gate and he didn't have a mask on and I had a doctor's note," Kitze-Ward explained. "I also had a Covid test in my bag and she (gate attendant) said 'Is he not wearing a mask?' I said 'No, I have a doctor's note,' and she said 'Okay, well I have to go show my supervisor.'"

Federal law requires anyone over the age of two to wear a mask when on an airplane. According to its website, Southwest can consider exemptions for people with disabilities but must have a letter from the passenger's doctor and a form filled out on the Southwest website at least a week in advance, a requirement that the Ward family was not aware of. When they realized Max wouldn’t get a mask exemption, they offered to have him put his mask on, but it was too late.

"I said, 'Okay, he's got a mask on and she said it's too late, you've already shown me doctor's documentation," Kitze-Ward said, explaining her continued interaction with the gate attendant. "My doctor's documentation says he may have trouble. It doesn't say he won't wear a mask."

Kitze-Ward was advised to call Southwest. She says the customer service line had a 90-minute wait at 5 o'clock Tuesday morning.

"I said 'What do we do now?' and she said 'You wait,'" Kitze-Ward explained. "I said, 'Well what if we miss our flight?' She said, 'Then that's what happens.'"

Megan and Matt were forced to make a tough decision. It was decided that Matt would stay home with Max while Megan and Cali would go forward with the trip.

"They ruined our family trip," Kitze-Ward said. "I earned a free trip with my job and was taking the whole family. We upgraded our room. It's our first trip in three years."

The family was refunded for the two tickets that Matt and Max weren't able to use, but says that doesn't help replace the memories that two of the four are missing out on.

"I feel like sort of a victim of circumstance and policy and things like that, but I just really feel bad for Max because he's excluded," Matt Ward said. "We weren't even necessarily saying that we didn't want him to not have to wear it. We were just saying that there may be some issues with it."

CBS 58 reached out to Southwest Airlines for comment on the situation. A spokesperson for the airline provided this response:

"Our Customer Relations Team is looking into this and will respond to the Customer once they’ve been able to gather all the details about the situation. We take pride in providing a warm and welcoming environment for all Customers and we are disheartened to hear of the family’s less-than-positive experience."

The Wards are hopeful that other families facing similar circumstances will learn from their experience.

"I just want other people to be aware," Kitze-Ward said. "I just want Southwest to make this right and never do this to someone again."

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