Mask policy dispute mires Arizona family's Milwaukee flight

They bought tickets and went through security -- but weren't allowed on board.

An Arizona family tells FOX6 News that they were humiliated at Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport because their 2-year-old daughter wasn't wearing a mask.

The mother, Giavanna Vargas, said she wasn't aware that Southwest Airlines' mask policy applied to children younger than age 3. The airline, in the name of customer safety, is standing by its employees' decision.

"Literally, Milwaukee Airport is making us (expletive) force a mask on our 2-year-old," Vargas said.

Giavanna Vargas' husband tried to put a mask on her 2-year-old daughter

The family was set to fly home to Arizona on Monday, Dec. 7 after visiting family in Wisconsin.

"As a mother, it was just heartbreaking. I was crying at that moment because it was horrible," said Vargas.

Giavanna Vargas' husband tried to put a mask on her 2-year-old daughter

Vargas said Southwest Airlines employees prevented her family from boarding because her daughter, who has just turned 2 years old and has sensory issues, was not wearing a mask.

They tried having the young girl wear one without success. Some of their luggage -- including Vargas' Type 1 diabetes medication -- was still on board the plane.

"I feel like they just push their policies, but they don't care about, you know when it comes down to it, their people that fly with them," Vargas said.

Giavanna Vargas

The family flew out on Tuesday, but not without the headache. Vargas' husband missed work and received a disorderly conduct ticket for the argument with staff.

Jerry O'Brien, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Kohl Center for Retailing, said the incident highlights the difficulty of enforcing mask policies -- especially for retailers.

"The truth of the matter is airlines probably need to be more strict about this rule than anyone, because the first way for them to get back to profitability and full planes is to convince fliers that it's safe," O'Brien said.

Southwest Airlines

In a statement to FOX6, Southwest clarified the situation, saying they have required masks for all customers ages 2 and up since July and that they notify customers several times before departure.

The airline also said that the family was addressed because the 2-year-old -- and an adult -- were not properly wearing masks.

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Southwest did rebook the family on their return flight Tuesday free of charge.

Vargas, again, said she hopes that other families can learn from their experience as they consider next steps.

Full statement from Southwest Airlines:

"As part of our Southwest Promise, Southwest Airlines requires all Customers over the age of two to wear a face covering or face mask while traveling to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to support public health during the current pandemic. This requirement has been in effect since July.

"We communicate our face covering policy to all Customers at multiple touchpoints throughout the travel journey, including during booking, in a pre-trip email sent prior to departure, and during a required acknowledgment that is part of the Customer Health Declaration Form and appears during the check-in process on the Southwest app, Southwest.com, Southwest’s mobile website, and airport kiosks.

"Caring for others with our Southwest Hearts is at the center of everything we do, which is especially important during this pandemic. In this situation, an adult and a child were addressed for not wearing face coverings. After discussing our policies with the Customers and being assured of future face covering compliance, Southwest offered to re-book them, free of charge, on the next itinerary to their final destination on the very same day; however, they chose to travel the following day, so Southwest extended the fee-waived rebooking.

"Finally, after the original flight departed, Southwest was then notified that one of the travelers placed medication in their checked baggage. To assist, the Southwest Team called the Customers’ final destination and had the baggage secured until the Customers’ arrival. As always, Southwest strongly suggests that all medication be packed in carry-on luggage.

"We appreciate the ongoing support and spirit of cooperation among Southwest Customers and Employees as we collectively take care of each other while striving to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

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