One year ago, I started this site and wouldn’t you know that one of my first articles was Delta’s Elusive Clearance to Fly Program. I’m not sure if you remember that debacle, but if you don’t, feel free to take a look again now. If you don’t know already, we enjoy traveling. Even with my large crazy crew. Another year has gone by and to my dismay, the mask requirements are still in place for airlines, at least for now. Although I still greatly appreciate Delta for being one of the only airlines to offer these exemptions during the first year of the pandemic, unfortunately flight options for our destination combined with schedule required us to utilize American Airlines this time around instead. I’m happy to say that we jumped through all the hoops and my son received his mask exemption. The process was smoother than I had expected based on our last experience. Here are a few key points worth noting on American’s policy, on how it compares with Delta’s, and how CDC guidance plays into it all.
- American Requires Everything to Be Taken Care of Ahead of Time
Unlike Delta, who requires everything to be done the day of travel (which quite frankly is a bit nerve racking in my opinion), American requires that you submit a request for mask exemption via email at least 24 hours before your scheduled flight. Although it wasn’t written anywhere, I was also instructed by the special assistance team, that the medical document provided by the doctor would need to be written within 30 days of travel, which was kind of a pain as well. Being proactive, I made sure to talk about this with my doctor ahead of time and thankfully he was happy to accommodate rewriting my son’s mask exemption form before our trip. All in all, it was nice to know ahead of time that you weren’t going to be denied a mask exemption instead of finding out the day of.
- Negative Covid Test Required
A downside to the American policy is that any mask approval is conditional on a negative covid test taken no more than 3 days prior to the flight. For us, this was not a big deal as our destination required a covid test already as well. But for those looking to fly domestic or to a destination that doesn’t require a test, it is not an ideal experience to put your child through to get onto a flight. Especially if you travel often.
- Make Sure You Hit All the Highlights for the Exemption Form.
I gave a copy of the the email provided by American directly to my doctor so that he could see everything required to be on the form. Even then, our first submission was knocked back because he forgot to include his license number. A somewhat easy fix, but just another thing to do. I had thankfully submitted the form to the airline in plenty of time (for this reason exactly) as we didn’t want to find out too close to travel, and not have time to correct the issue.
- Just Stating Diagnosis of Autism Will Not Be Enough
I was so happy last year when the government stepped in and told airlines that they couldn’t just deny travel to people who had medical disabilities affecting their ability to wear a mask. The blatant discrimination was honestly baffling to me. I’ve heard people say before that airlines do not fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so they did not have to accept medical exemptions, which is half true. It’s true that the ADA doesn’t regulate air travel, but they do have another law that does, the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), and it says just about the same thing as the ADA, you can’t discriminate against passengers based on their disability. So, after all of these airlines were essentially breaking this law, the government stepped in and told them they needed to make plans to accommodate travelers who have medical exemptions for wearing a mask. But unfortunately, the CDC updated its guidelines and made it a little harder to get a mask exemption approved. The CDC basically said that just because a disability can cause wearing a mask to be difficult for some, that is not enough reason for a mask exemption. The CDC further breaks it down into those that “are exempt” and those that “may be exempt.” My son personally fell in the “may be exempt requirement”. I talked with my doctor about this and he made sure to list the reason why a mask exemption should be granted to my son using wording vary close to that stated by the CDC as to try to avoid any reasons for the airline to refuse the exemption. Having a good pediatrician in your corner that is willing to take the time to do things like this is very important. Here is the site to check out the complete CDC guidance on the subject so you can reference it yourself.
- You Cannot Check in Online
This actually applies for anyone under the same reservation as the person with the requested mask exemption. Even with VeriFly complete, which included a negative covid test for everyone in our party, the system still does not allow you to check in online when you have a mask exemption requested. So, make sure you allow some additional time on the day of travel to check in at the desk for all your boarding passes.
- Print and Carry Copies of All Documents
Even through everything was submitted ahead of time, some American airlines still requested to see our paperwork during our travel. I know it can be a pain, but I would suggest you get a folder and include copies of the medical exemption form, negative covid test, and even the email with confirmation from American Airlines that they are approving or conditionally approving the mask exemption.
- Designated Seat
Another difference from Delta, per American’s policy for the mask exemption they require you to sit in the very last row of coach, or the very first row of first class. I believe that if you are an adult, they also will leave an empty seat between the person with the mask exemption and any other passengers. Because this was my child, and we were all in the same party, this was not required for us. I’d love to say I could swing first class for my whole crew, but as you can probably guess, we sat in the very back of coach. They did allow us to board first as well, which was nice. And sitting in the back didn’t really bother us. Just one less direction I have to worry about my kids bothering other people on the plane honestly.
All in all, the process this time around was smoother than I had expected. There are definitely plusses and minuses to each of the different airlines’ processes that we have been through, but overall, I would say that I prefer American’s system between the two. We even had a flight delay and missed our connection on the way home and didn’t have any issues transferring the mask exemption request over to the new flight we were put on. I was happy that was the case as I was told that the mask exemption approval would only be valid under this one reservation, but I believe even moving a flight they still list everything under the same reservation number. The biggest factor in why I think American’s policy is better for us, was knowing ahead of time that we weren’t going to be denied travel. I can’t say that we felt that way during at least one of our flights with Delta. And when you are planning going on a big trip with an autistic child, uncertainty is definitely not something you would choose to have.