Southwest Airlines Sued for Ejecting Woman Who Removed Mask to Drink Water

Southwest Airlines Sued for Ejecting Woman Who Removed Mask to Drink Water
A Southwest Airlines jet sits at a gate at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 11, 2021. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
Nicholas Dolinger

A 68-year-old woman has sued Southwest Airlines Co., claiming that the airline ejected her from a flight for removing her mask to drink water.

The lawsuit concerns an incident which occurred in January 2021 on a Southwest flight due to depart from Reagan National Airport in Virginia to Palm Beach International Airport in Florida. Plaintiff Medora Claiborne Reading claims that her civil rights as a medically disabled person were infringed by the airline, which removed her from the flight prior to takeoff.

The complaint describes how the plaintiff informed the Southwest employee from whom she purchased the ticket that she was in need of special accommodation due to a heart condition, hypoglycemia, claustrophobia, and a tendency for fainting; all of which can impede her breathing. Reading was told that the airline could accommodate her disability.

When Reading approached a Southwest employee at the gate of her flight to explain her medical conditions, she was allegedly told by a gate supervisor that Southwest “does not care” about her disability and that no special accommodation would be made on her behalf.

After Reading was seated, she requested water from a Southwest flight attendant and offered to show her medical exemption card, when she was again allegedly told “we don’t care.” The attendant did provide a bottle of water, but the suit claims that Reading was persistently harassed whenever she removed her mask to drink water, even as she experienced difficulty breathing and emotional distress.

The complaint goes on to describe how, after several attempts to hydrate herself, Reading was told by the gate supervisor that she was being removed from the flight. In her account of the incident, Reading was laughed at by an unmasked pilot as she was leaving the plane. Once she had reached the inside of the airport, Reading was allegedly asked to sign a document attesting that she was removed from the flight for being noncompliant, which she refused.

Within the airport, Reading was assisted by Metro Police, who she claims remarked that such incidents were “happening far too often,” adding “it is usually Southwest.” After nearly collapsing, Reading was offered water and escorted to a chair where she could remove her mask, at which point she said blood gushed out from her nose. Reading was ultimately able to make arrangements to return home to Florida through Jet Blue.

The suit includes five causes of action, with two against Southwest Airlines, one against the flight attendants and gate attendant involved in the incident, and two against all of the above mentioned defendants. Altogether, the plaintiff is seeking $10 million in restitution for the alleged violations.

Southwest said that while it wouldn’t comment specifically on Reading’s case, its travel policy aligns with the February 2021 federal mask mandate for air travel. The airline had also implemented its own mask mandate for its flights in May 2020.

A spokesperson added, “We communicate the requirement directly with traveling passengers multiple times ahead of their departure, and we share in onboard announcements that these coverings may be briefly lowered for a sip of a beverage or to take a bite of a snack.”

Airlines have maintained some of the most severe mask enforcement policies of any industry, despite HEPA filtration systems on commercial jets making for extraordinarily high air quality in flight cabins. Last December, during a Congressional hearing featuring leaders of the airline industry, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly expressed skepticism about the necessity of wearing masks on flights.

“99.97 percent of airborne pathogens are captured by these [sic] HEPA filtering system, which is turned over every three minutes,” Kelly said during the hearing. “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It’s very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

Nevertheless, the mask mandates have persisted stubbornly in flight cabins, now backed by a federal mandate, with no clear indication from major airlines if or when the rules will be repealed. Much ink has been spilled over the subject of “unruly” passengers on flights who refuse to cooperate with mask rules, but less attention has been given to the onerousness of such rules, especially for individuals with medical disabilities.