The U.S. Department of Transportation determined JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines violated federal law when they refused to grant a disabled Virginia man mask exemptions, a win for Americans with medical conditions battling the airlines over their extremely restrictive policies on face coverings.
DOT found JetBlue violated the Air Carrier Access Act by failing to provide an accommodation to a passenger with a disability with respect to the carrier’s mask policy for Kleanthis Andreadakis’ October 2020 request to fly maskless from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston, Massachusetts, for the birth of his first granddaughter.
“JetBlue’s mask policy that was in place at the time Mr. Andreadakis planned to travel failed to provide an exemption for passengers with disabilities who cannot wear or safely wear a mask due to their disabilities,” according to the Investigation Summary Sheet issued by DOT’s Office of General Counsel. “As a result, JetBlue did not conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether Mr. Andreadakis could not wear or safely wear a mask due to his disability and whether a reasonable accommodation could be made that would permit Mr. Andreadakis to fly safely without a mask. Therefore, we find that JetBlue violated the ACAA.”
Andreadakis, who is part of a group of 13 disabled flyers suing JetBlue, Southwest, and five other airlines for illegal mask discrimination, filed a complaint with DOT in October 2020, which took more than a year to resolve. He complained that JetBlue’s website at the time stipulated that all passengers over the age of two must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth throughout their journey, with no exemptions for medical conditions.
“In the carrier’s October 22, 2020, letter to Mr. Andreadakis, JetBlue confirms Mr. Andreadakis’ understanding of its mask policy by stating that it requires all customers over the age of 2 to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth throughout their journey, including during check-in, boarding, in flight and deplaning,” according to DOT. However, “The Air Carrier Access Act and its implementing regulation … require airlines to make reasonable accommodations, based on individualized assessments, for passengers with disabilities who are unable to wear or safely wear a mask due to their disabilities.”
DOT did not fine JetBlue for discriminating against Andreadakis, which he said is disturbing. He is considering challenging the lack of a penalty in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. He is already suing the Transportation Security Administration in the Court of Appeals to strike down the Federal Transportation Mask Mandate.
“For DOT to simply give JetBlue a pass on anything punitive for violating my civil rights is mind-boggling,” he said. “ACAA – the law that is supposed to protect the disabled in air travel – has been the law since 1986. DOT can’t abrogate airlines’ legal responsibilities under the law. It’s appalling that the agency charged by Congress with the protection and enforcement of civil rights for the disabled in air travel is not fining airlines for depriving me of the ability to fly, furthering the prejudices that the disabled endure daily.”
DOT also found Southwest violated the ACAA by failing to provide an accommodation for Andreadakis’ September 2020 request to fly maskless from Richmond to Tampa, Florida.
“Mr. Andreadakis was informed that anyone not wearing mask will not be allowed to travel on Southwest. In the carrier’s September 21, 2020, reply to Mr. Andreadakis, Southwest confirms Mr. Andreadakis’ allegation that a passenger who can not or refuses to wear a mask will not be allowed to travel on Southwest,” DOT wrote. “Southwest’s mask policy that was in place at the time Mr. Andreadakis planned to travel failed to provide an exemption for passengers with disabilities who cannot wear or safely wear a mask due to their disabilities. … Therefore, we find that Southwest violated the ACAA.”
But again, DOT did not fine Southwest for its illegal discrimination against the disabled. Both rulings allege that the air carriers have informed DOT that they have amended their mask policy to comply with the ACAA, but Andreadakis said that’s not true.
“It’s terrible that DOT found Southwest broke the law but imposed no penalty,” Andreadakis said. “Only a month ago, Southwest denied yet another mask-exemption request from me, clearly showing it hasn’t changed its policy to comply with the law. Something is very wrong at Southwest Airlines and even more so at the Department of Transportation.”
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