If you can't fly without a mask even with a doctor's note, should the airline refund the ticket?

Can you fly without a mask if you have a doctor’s note?

Can you fly without a mask at this stage of the pandemic if you have a doctor’s note? Since late last summer, the blunt answer from most airlines is no. Katheryn Stueckle’s son can’t physically tolerate a face covering, but she has no problem with American Airlines’ updated mask requirements. However, she would like a refund for the flight she purchased before the airline changed the policy.

American Airlines says she purchased the flight after it eliminated medical exemptions to the mask requirement. As a result, it denied the refund.

Can we help? (Last updated April 22)

Stueckle’s case highlights the fact that the coronavirus is continuing to hammer the airline industry. Every carrier’s policies are constantly changing to address the CDC and the World Health Organization’s new guidance. As a result, it’s critical that all travelers keep abreast of the airlines’ almost daily updates. Stueckle overlooked the possibility of these sudden changes, and that almost cost her several hundred dollars — almost.

An exciting opportunity — waylaid by the coronavirus

Stueckle’s adult son is disabled. He currently lives at home with his parents. But an exciting opportunity for him came to light in the past year. Knowing that they won’t live forever, the Stueckles had been looking for a community for their son to join.

“We found a wonderful place that we thought he would love,” Stueckle recalled. “He received the initial approval and the community put him on the conditional waitlist. We were thrilled.”

The next step in the admissions process was to fly from Washington state to Texas. There, Stueckle’s son would have a tour of the community and a personal interview. Stueckle scheduled the appointment and then began looking for the best flights.

Just as the trip was really taking shape, the coronavirus threw a wrench in their plans.

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“As I was researching flights, it soon became clear that every airline was beginning to require masks,” Stueckle reported. “My son can travel by air without a problem, but his disability makes it impossible to wear a face mask.”

Stueckle says she carefully read American Airlines’ information about medical exemptions to the mask policy. She was relieved — the airline would allow her son to fly without a mask with a doctor’s note.

With that crisis averted, Stueckle began to plan the rest of the journey.

My son has a doctor’s note. Can he fly without a mask?

Several days after Stueckle initially began her trip planning, she and her son visited his doctor. His physician-approved him for travel and provided the note that allowed him to fly without a mask.

Stueckle was pleased.  All parts of her son’s important journey into the next step of his life were falling into place. She next called American Airlines. Before purchasing the tickets, she asked the airline to confirm that it would allow her son to fly without a mask with the doctor’s note.

I called American Airlines and I described our situation. I asked if the note my son’s doctor gave us would allow him to fly without a mask. The agent said yes and even referred me to the policy on their website that confirmed this information.

Tired from a long day, Stueckle hung up the phone and decided to book the flights the next evening. Around 9 p.m. on the next day, Stueckle signed into her AA account and booked two round-trip tickets.

With all the finishing touches on their trip, she and her son began happily looking forward to the adventure.

Unfortunately, just days later, Stueckle would find out that they were in for a much bigger adventure than expected. And that change of plans would end up costing the family nearly $800 extra.

American Airlines: “Passengers can no longer fly without a mask — even with a note.”

Stueckle was reading through some news stories on the internet when one caught her eye. It announced that American Airlines had changed its face-covering policy. Now, no passenger over age two would be able to fly without a mask. This new policy would include passengers with stated medical conditions that caused them to be unable to wear a mask.

The news stunned Stueckle. With her son’s critical interview just weeks away, how would they get there? She called American Airlines. An agent confirmed that the airline would not allow her son to fly without a face mask. This representative directed her to the updated policy.

American Airlines will require all customers over the age of 2 to wear face coverings at airports and onboard, strengthening the airline’s commitment to keeping customers and team members safe. This requirement will become effective on July 29, 2020. Due to the safety risk of asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission by individuals without face coverings, all customers must wear a face covering from the time they enter their departure airport and not remove it until they exit their arrival airport. This updated policy expands American’s face covering requirement to include all areas of the airports at which American operates, including Admirals Club lounges, as well as on board all American flights and does not allow for exemptions for those over two years old. (Press release from American Airlines)

With very little time to put together a giant road trip, Stueckle frantically began planning.

Road trip: The only option if you can’t wear a mask on a flight

We had to drive! Because of American Airlines’ sudden policy change — more than 2,300 miles round-trip, with four nights in hotels, meals, gas. We spent about $800 extra — not to mention the time it cost us.

American Airlines would not refund our tickets but instead issued a voucher for future travel next year. My son cannot fly without a mask, so we can’t travel until the policy changes. I applied for a refund online, and AA denied my request. I then emailed explaining the situation and spoke with someone in customer relations and that person refused my request, too. Can you help? A refund could help offset these extra expenses! 

When I read through Stueckle’s request for help, I could definitely sympathize. When I was a practicing psychotherapist, I helped many disabled adults find residential communities that fit their needs. I know how hard it is to land interviews in high-quality locations. So I understood the critical nature of this trip. Rescheduling the interview wasn’t an option.

Unfortunately, I also knew that, in general, the airlines are not deviating from their coronavirus cancellation policies. And when I looked at the actual timeline of Stueckle’s reservation, it appeared that she’d booked after the policy change. But it was very soon after — possibly just hours after AA updated its policy.

Can Elliott Advocacy mediate a refund from American Airlines during the pandemic?

The Elliott Advocacy team receives hundreds and hundreds of requests for help every month. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, a hefty chunk of these requests comes from consumers asking for goodwill gestures. These pleas for help all come with a story that the individual believes makes their case unique. But our team has a policy of not mediating goodwill gesture requests because there are just too many. Asking for these types of considerations just reduces our ability to resolve situations in which companies have truly wronged consumers.

But in rare cases, the circumstances just seem like something we should present to a company for its review.

The Stueckle’s case certainly wasn’t the worst booking mistake I had ever seen(this one actually is.). But I thought it was worth a look by American Airlines. After all, she had booked the flight very close to the policy change — and her son definitely cannot fly without a mask. Unlike other cases, we’ve received challenging the mask requirements on flights (See: What happens if you refuse to wear a mask on a flight?), Stueckle actually agreed with the policy. She just wanted a refund so she could apply it to her road trip expenses.

I decided to ask American Airlines for its opinion on the case.

Asking American Airlines for a review of this refund request

I have a case here today that I thought your team might want to consider. Kathryn Stueckle purchased airfare for herself and her disabled son. She called a few days previously to ask about the mask requirements for disabled people. At that time an agent told her that the doctor’s note would allow him to fly without a mask. Unfortunately, Kathryn didn’t check if things had changed a few days later when she purchased the tickets online. It looks like that is the same day that the masks became a requirement for everyone. She understands this and doesn’t have a problem with the rule. But she is hoping that American Airlines would refund the tickets. When the mask rules change, she will fly with her son again.

The reason I’m sending this case to your team is that the date of purchase seems to be the same day that the mask requirements changed. If the American Airlines website had made the it clear that changes were coming, she wouldn’t have purchased the tickets. Thank you for considering this request. ✈ (Michelle to American Airlines)

The good news: A refund is on the way!

And very shortly, I received the good news from our executive contact at American Airlines.

Hey there Michelle,

Our Customer Relations team has spoken with Ms. Stueckle. We’re voiding her voucher and issuing her a refund to her original form of payment. (American Airlines to Michelle)

Stueckle is pleased to report more good news, too. Not only did American Airlines come through in the end, but her son got word that he aced his interview. He’s now on the official waitlist for his new community and the plans are for a late springtime visit.

Travel guidance during the pandemic

Many consumers contact us daily asking us if taking a trip is ok at this time. Here’s some guidance to help you make your decision.

  • Get vaccinated or stay home 
    Everyone here at Elliott Advocacy shares a love of travel. So staying home was particularly hard during the pandemic, but there is good news. As of April 2, the CDC says that fully vaccinated people can travel safely around the United States.  Most states have a sufficient supply of the vaccine at this time to provide it to everyone who wants it. Fully vaccinated people do not need to self-quarantine or be tested before travel (unless their destination requires it). But if you choose not to be vaccinated or can’t be vaccinated, the guidance remains to stay home for now.
  • If you plan on flying, you must wear a mask
    If you travel, even if you are vaccinated, be aware of the mask requirements. In the United States at this time, no passenger above age two can fly without a mask. As of Feb 2021, this is a federal law. This rule is not negotiable, and the airlines are banning people who try to fly without a mask. Remember, the CDC’s current guidance says that wearing a mask protects you and the people around you. Parents of small children who won’t willingly wear a mask should abandon plans to travel by air.
  • Masks are required on other forms of public transportation
    It’s essential to remember that masks are currently required on all forms of public transportation. If you intend to go anywhere using a bus, train, taxi, subway or rideshare — you’ll need your mask. The CDC explains why masks are important on public forms of transportation here.
  • Get a comfortable, suitable mask
    If you must travel, you’re going to need to make sure you have a comfortable mask that meets your airline’s standards. All masks are not created equal, and sometimes the ones that look cute aren’t practical or comfortable (I speak from experience 🙂 ). Be certain to try out the one you’ll be wearing for your flight — before the day of travel. And don’t overlook the airlines’ rules about the type of mask that is acceptable. Most airlines do not accept plastic shields, vented masks, scarves made of sheer material or masks with valves.
  • Be aware of the ever-changing policies during the pandemic
    Company policies are changing at lightning speed during the pandemic — especially in the airline industry. Now, more than ever, air passengers must check travel requirements frequently — that includes before and after ticket purchase. As Stueckle discovered, a policy that exists one day may be eliminated the next. So even after you confirm your itinerary, you’ll want to check your airline’s policies right up to the time you head to the airport to make sure you’re qualified for travel. Bookmark the websites of your origin and destination airports, as well as any airports where you might be making a connection — and check back frequently.
  • Request a refund if you can’t comply with the current mask or other safety requirements
    If you purchased a ticket on an airline and policies changed afterward, making you unqualified to travel, you should be entitled to a refund. The Elliott Advocacy research team keeps our airline executive contacts up to date to help you make your refund request easily. And of course, Christopher’s article detailing how to make the perfect help request can guide you as well.
  • File a complaint with the Department of Transportation
    An airline should never change its policies after you’ve purchased your ticket. But if for some reason — like a global pandemic — a policy change becomes necessary, a passenger should be entitled to a refund if they can’t comply with the new terms. If the airline refuses your request for a refund because you can’t physically wear a mask and you bought the ticket before the policy was implemented, you can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation using this link.

Final thoughts about traveling during the pandemic

Delta Air Lines appears to be one of the only major airlines still readily accepting medical waivers to the mask policy. But it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are people out there trying to take advantage of this policy. In fact (gasp!), some are lying about medical conditions. Concerning this mask policy, Delta is warning its passengers that:

Any false claims of a disability or health condition to obtain an exemption from wearing a mask or face covering may result in the suspension of travel privileges on any Delta flight for the duration of the mask/face covering requirement.

And travelers should know that although the Air Carrier Access Act forbids airlines from asking passengers to reveal their medical condition, if the case escalates to a court of law, proof will be required. If you’re bluffing, your airline could end up banning you permanently — or worse. And since we know airlines share disruptive passenger information, you could find yourself grounded permanently.

Finally, if you don’t “believe” in the coronavirus, please don’t try to post your conspiracy theories here. We’ve seen some interesting and creative thoughts about the pandemic that a few commenters would like to share. We can’t approve those comments. So if that’s you, you’ll need to find an alternative platform to spread your ideas. We use official, scientific and medical sources in our reports.

Stay safe, everyone!! 🙂 (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)


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