Delta’s Elusive “Clearance to Fly” Program

So, you decide that you need to travel somewhere: Maybe it is essential travel, maybe after nearly a year of being cooped up at home 90% of the time, it is just essential for your mental health, either way you’ve decided it’s happening. Now, for most families they have the option to just load up their stuff, mask-up and they’re off. If you are a family like mine however, which includes an autistic child who can’t tolerate a mask for much time at all, then you soon realize that the already difficult task of traveling with your special needs’ child, just got that much harder.

So, I’ll give you the scenario: Family of 5, kids age 7 and under, 7-year-old is autistic with sensory issues and will not wear a mask correctly for more than 10 minutes at a time, husbands work is demanding and the best time to try and get time off is in the winter (so living in Ohio, you generally aim for somewhere south, preferably with a beach).

If you’re anything like me (kind of meticulous) you start to scour the internet for all the rules and regulations for flights and hotels. Originally you think maybe Disney? (and hey, bonus, we could drive) but sadly, their requirements for masks are just as unfriendly as the airlines at this time. So, you do a lot of research and find the perfect place: Autism certified, created specifically for people with small kids, basically a paradise from your situation! You make some quick calls and find out that they will accept your child’s mask waiver-YAY! Now it is time to book a flight. Thinking back to the past few months of these horror stories where 2-year-olds were kicked off planes because they well, were 2-years-old and didn’t want to wear their mask the whole flight… In your search you realize you have a choice between Delta, Delta, or um, Delta.

It feels like a saving grace. Delta states directly on their site that they will allow mask exemption for children under the age of 2 AND young children who cannot maintain a mask. This appears to be unheard of in this time when discrimination against those with disabilities runs rampant and without check (a vent session for another time maybe). Delta is it, the only major airline you can find that flies where you are going, and that you have a shot of not getting kicked off when your child has a melt down when they will not keep the mask on. But of course, this now begs the question: What does Delta consider a YOUNG CHILD??

Initial Convos

On the first call into Delta customer service, I gave the rundown to a woman that made everything seem like no problem at all. She said “Your kiddos are young, just tell them the situation at the gate and I should have no troubles.” Wow, seems so easy. So, I took a leap of faith and booked the trip. But like I told you already, I’m meticulous. A few more stories pop up again on the news about kids getting kicked off flights. So, about a week before our trip, I decide I would feel a lot better if I got something in writing. Delta doesn’t have an email, but they have messaging system. So, I start to the conversation:

Me: “Delta’s mask policy states that children under two and young children who cannot maintain wearing a mask are exempt, what does delta consider YOUNG children?”

Delta Rep: “Anyone over 2 years old is required to wear a face mask.”

Me: “But your policy states AND young children who cannot maintain a face mask. Again, I just want to know what Delta considers a young child.”

Delta Rep: “I can’t answer that.”

Me: “Can you connect me to someone who can?”

Delta Rep: “My supervisor is here and he can’t answer it either.”

Me: “There has to be someone in your company that has an answer to their own policy!”

This continues on back and forth for some time with no resolution until he finally says:

“My supervisor says that it is at the discretion of the flight attendant.”


Me (quietly losing my mind and my cool): “I have a child with a disability, who has a doctor written medical exemption for a face covering. I need some sort of assurance BEFORE the day of travel that we will not have any issues on this flight, what can I do.”

Delta Rep: “You will have to complete the “Clearance to Fly” program

Me: “What is involved in the Clearance to Fly”

Delta: “I don’t know, it is done through a third party”

I open up another page and start looking up any information I can find on the “Clearance to Fly”. Basically, sounds like a Teladoc appointment at the airport…

Me: “How do I start the process?”

Delta Rep: “You arrive at least 1 extra hour early to the airport and tell someone you need to complete the clearance to fly.”

Me: “Is there any way I can do it before the day of, could I contact a doctor now instead?”

Delta Rep: “No, it has to be completed the day of.”

Me: “Where in the airport do I go, or who do I have to ask.”

Delta Rep: “I don’t know, it is not done by Delta. Every airport is different.”

I go on banging my head against a wall for another 15 minutes trying to get any piece of information out of this person I could that may potentially help me understand this process, but eventually I give up on the notion that this guy will help me at all.

I tried calling Delta again the next day, the nice lady on the phone told me essentially what I had heard the first time around, but digging for more solid answers led her to reach out to her supervisor. This essentially ended me at the same spot; Clearance to Fly.

The thought of cancelling the trip entered my mind many times. I actually even prepared a plan B of somewhere we could go in case they didn’t let us on the flight. I was careful the whole week to not say the name of the place we were going or anything about a plane until I had confirmation that we would be approved. I was trying not to break three little kids hearts or cause a meltdown for my autistic son who loves vacation and just would not understand.

First Attempt

A weeks’ worth of mini panic attacks later, we get to the airport, and I am READY. I have a folder with the doctor’s exemption letter, printed off papers with Deltas own policy, and printed papers that state the CDCs guidance for those who should NOT be required to wear masks. I am ready for the talk to whoever I need to get this thing approved. So, we get to the check-in/baggage area and I start the conversation with the attendant:

Me: “I have a child with disabilities and a note from his medical provider exempting him from wearing a face mask, I was told we need to ask to complete the Clearance to Fly.”

She looks at me a little confused but trying to appear confident: “You should have completed that before”

Me: “What? Before where?

Her: “You will do it at the gate check-in counter.”

Me: “Is there somewhere else I need to go back to? Where should I have gone?”

Her obviously trying to stop this conversation: “No, the gate check-in counter.”

Confused to say the least, and now even more anxious we make our way through security and to our gate, which of course has no attendant there. Apparently, us being there an “extra” hour early must have been too early (we are T-minus two hours at this point to our flight departure). So, I attempt to locate any other Delta employee, which I eventually find at another gate. He asks me if I have the number? Of course, my reply is “what number?” To which he says that the gate attendant for my flight will give me a number to call and that an attendant should be there at least an hour before the flight departs. So, I wait.

Eventually, just a little over one hour to departure, a gate attendant shows up. I walk up, once again tell her that I have a child with a disability that has difficulty wearing a mask and that I was told I needed to complete the clearance to fly. She asks me if I have a doctors’ note. I said yes, I had one and would be happy to provide it. She says that all I need to do is show it to the flight attendants when we board and we shouldn’t have any issues. I ask about the number (referenced earlier by the other Delta Rep), she says “no”, what we have will be fine. Ok, easy enough.

Feeling like a huge weight is lifted off of my shoulders, it is soon time to board. We line up for the early boarding for young children and I carry on my youngest son, which of course at this moment in time is screaming for no good reason (it seems they always find the perfect times to start doing this). With my first step onto the plane, I encounter two flight attendants, middle aged, both brunettes. And over my screaming child, I tell them that I have a 7-year-old autistic child who has difficulty wearing a mask and I have the mask exemption letters if they need them. They look at me taken aback by all the information I just shouted at them, and nod their heads in agreement. They politely ask if I need anything, but I say no, and I go take me seat with a deep sigh of relief.

Unfortunately, my relief was short lived as my husband comes along a minute later stating that one of the flight attendants already said something to him about our 7-year-old not having a mask on and told him, as she pointed to her phone, that she had “the list of people from the Mayo Clinic who were approved to not wear a mask, and if his name was not on that list, then he would have to wear one or he couldn’t fly”.

I COULD SCREAM. Seriously, there is NO ONE on the planet that tried harder than me to make sure that everything was taken care of, that every box was checked. I of course asked him which flight attendant? I had just talked with two and they said everything would be fine. He said a younger blonde lady (not one of the two I had come across). In any case, I was mentally preparing myself to be one of those videos shared all over the internet of parents pleading with flight attendants to just be human beings and understand that we are just doing our best. We all sat down, but I had yet to see the flight attendant he had described.

We grabbed a mask out of our bag and had him put it on and just waited for him to rip it off or for the potential meltdowns to begin with our attempt number two of putting it back on. Essentially just waiting for all the fears I had had to come true: For them to walk back and tell us we had to get off the plane.

By some grace of God, she didn’t say anything else to us. My son did, as I imagined, removed the mask not too long after, and we tried to give him snacks and such and keep an eye for the dreaded flight attendant. But no one pushed this issue. I am not positive, but I have a feeling that the head flight attendant or whomever was in charge may have just told the young blonde attendant to chill out. Whatever the case, we made it to our destination, free of the fame of the internet that I had feared. Thank God for small or giant favors!

Trip Home

My husband advised me to just not say anything this time around, but once again people, I am meticulous about this kind of stuff! I had also read on the brief and vague description of Delta’s clearance fly procedure, that in many cases you would only have to do this process ONCE and then, you would be saved in the system. Not that we have any plans to travel anytime soon…

We got to the gate for our flight and asked about completing the clearance to fly. Of course, I am told that I was supposed to do this BEFORE, again I ask, “before where?” Still unclear on this magical place of BEFORE, she agrees and calls her manager or whomever it was from Delta to assist. The manager makes a call. I think it was to a doctor, although, I never got to be on the call myself. She reads off the written form from my sons’ medical provider. They take a couple of pictures of the letter along with his boarding pass and say that we should be set for the flight. She reminds me again that we are supposed to do this procedure earlier, since it generally takes a lot of time. I of course wonder to myself WHY it would take so much longer but don’t push that issue. I instead ask whether we are good now for any future flights? I told her I had read that in most instances, they would be put on a clearance to fly list for the future. She says that is not correct, that it would have to be done again every time you fly, as this system works by reservation. Oh, goody. Either way, I am just thankful that this time around I had at least a couple of people from Delta knew how to help.

Moral of the Story

Thankfully there is one major airline left out there that is not openly discriminating against people with disabilities who cannot wear a mask, and that airline is Delta. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Delta employees appear to have no good grasp on what their own company’s policies actually are and will spew out incorrect answers consistently that you may later have to pay for.

So, to parents embarking on the journey of clearance to fly: Be extra prepared (always my motto), don’t believe everything you hear from the reps, have your documents ready, and make sure they call the number to go through the actual process of talking to a doctor.

To Delta: Truly, THANK YOU for being the only company that is not discriminating against the those with special needs. This is not a thing I take lightly, and Delta will be my preferred airline of choice from now on. But please, PLEASE, for the sake of all us parents out there with special needs children, we need you to step up your game on this communication thing.

Note: A few weeks after our trip took place the US Federal Government has changed their policies in place that require everyone over the age of 2 who does not have a medical exemption to wear a mask, making Delta’s clearance to fly procedure all that much more important to our friends with special needs.