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Oregon teen with special needs removed from airliner for not wearing mask

The Southwest Airlines policy is that all passengers two and older must wear a face covering.

PORTLAND, Ore. — A Beaverton family is on vacation in California but they cannot stop thinking about the flight that got them there.

"From a humane standpoint it wasn't right," said Tim Cleary.

Cleary, wife Jennifer Tharp, their kids, and some friends boarded a Southwest Airlines flight Wednesday. Everyone was masked except the couple's 15-year-old daughter, Mya, who is developmentally delayed and autistic. A flight attendant approached the family and reminded them of the airline's policy that all passengers two and older must wear a face covering.

"I said, 'Yeah she does wear one, it's intermittent', she'll wear it, take it off, wear it," said Tharp. "It's kind of hard for her."

It is hard because Mya struggles with sensory sensitivity. After a considerable amount of back and forth with the flight attendants, pilot and other airline staff, Mya was asked to get off the plane. Cell phone video showed just how difficult it was. Mya was very upset even with Cleary helping her off the plane.

"I wasn't happy obviously and I'm still not happy," said Cleary.

"I was angry, but to be honest, I was sad and in shock," added Tharp. "Just sad for my daughter that she was being treated that way. I feel like her rights were taken away from her."

Tharp and Cleary say the awful situation was lessened by the outpouring of support from passengers.

"The people around us were furious with Southwest," said Cleary. "They were fine with it."

Credit: Jennifer Tharp
Mya (left) with dad Tim (middle) and sister (right).

They were fine with no mask for Mya, who was forced to stay behind with Grandma while the rest of the family continued on to California. The family has had a lot of time to think about their experience and what they want to come from it.

"I think compassion would be great," said Tharp. "This is a situation none of us have ever been in. We understand that but there are gray areas and accommodations for life with everything, even this pandemic."

"We want to do our homework and do our research to know what needs to be done, if anything, to make sure our daughter is protected," said Cleary.

Southwest Airlines released the following statement to KGW:

"Although we do not discuss specific information regarding customers, we can share that, as part of our Southwest Promise, Customers and Employees age two and older are required to wear face coverings or masks, in accordance with public health guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since evidence demonstrates that COVID-19 can be spread by individuals who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected with the virus. Of course, we acknowledge there may be times when a customer needs to remove their face covering briefly, for example: to eat, drink, or take medicine. However, Southwest expects those instances to be very brief, and Customers should put their face covering back on as soon as possible. At Southwest, safety and caring for others with our Southwest Hearts is at the center of everything that we do—which is especially important during this pandemic. The overwhelming majority of our Customers are adhering to our face covering policy, and we appreciate the ongoing spirit of cooperation among customers and employees as we collectively take care of each other while striving to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

The CDC does recommend masks on airplanes, but there are exemptions. Among them, people dealing with sensory sensitivity.