Airlines

Airlines Are Too Heavy-Handed Over COVID-19 Policies for Kids: Expert

  • Many families with children have been removed or asked to leave flights over mask rules.
  • A family who flew on Southwest said their son struggled with his mask but the airline didn’t care. 
  • An industry expert said airlines should use common sense over mask policies for children.

Flying with young children can be a fraught experience at the best of times but it’s even harder during a pandemic.

Some passengers say airlines are not treating them fairly. Ryan Whitney Harris believed this was the case when her husband, their 7-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son traveled from Los Angeles to Nashville, Tennessee, on June 6. 

She said she was in tears after being apprehended by Southwest Airlines’ flight attendants because her toddler could not keep his mask on. 

“They never left us alone. The flight attendants were rude and had no care,” she told Insider. 

She went to great efforts to try and get her son to keep his mask on “while he screamed and kicked and cried,” she added.  

According to Harris, the family’s every action was scrutinized. In one instance, Harris said she handed her son a bag of sweets so he would just eat and they would be left alone by the airline crew. But she said they never were.

“Your son needs his mask on in between bites,” Harris recalled a flight attendant telling her. “I kept my mouth shut the whole time because I was afraid we would be kicked off the flight. Since they said if he didn’t wear the mask, we would.” 

Harris said she couldn’t accompany her son to the bathroom either. “They would not allow me to stand with my young child at the bathroom at three years old,” Harris said. “He was so scared.”

Southwest did not reply to multiple requests for comment by Insider.

Harris complained to the airline and in an emailed response, which Insider has viewed, it apologized for her experience. “Crew should not only be consistent but be compassionate. Ultimately, I’m sorry if we missed a chance to be of better service to your family,” it said.

Federal regulations state that those who do not comply with mask mandates will be denied travel. But are airlines being heavy-handed when it comes to small children?

Charles Leocha, president and co-founder of the Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group Travelers Unite, certainly thinks so. 

“Airlines that insist on having 2- and 3-year-old children wear masks at all times will always face problems,” he said. “Treating a 2-year-old like a 30-year-old is foolish and unnatural.”

In April, a family was ordered to leave a Southwest flight after their 2-year-old could not keep his mask on. 

Michelle Harvey, the boy’s mother, told Fox 7 that she had gotten him to practise wearing a mask before the flight, but he threw it off.

When the family boarded, her son again threw off the mask. The Harvey’s were subsequently kicked off the plane, according to the report.

Several similar cases involving Southwest and other airlines, made headlines through the summer. 

In August, a mother said that a flight attendant told her to glue a mask to her toddler’s face, according to reports. She said she has since received an apology.

Some people have reported much more positive experiences while traveling with children. Lauren Hales, her partner, her 2-year-old, and 3-month-old traveled from London to Portugal on British Airways in June. “We found flying smooth, safe, and surprisingly enjoyable,” she told Insider. 

Hales said only adults were required to wear face masks. The UK has mask regulations that may differ from other countries.

She said: “I was really nervous to fly and travel in the midst of a pandemic but it was the staff on the flight who made us all feel comfortable and at ease.” 

To reduce the chance of a dispute, Leocha suggested that before flying, “parents should help younger children practice wearing masks so kids are comfortable wearing them during flight.”

But, he said, the responsibility also fell on airlines, which “should allow common sense to prevail.”