‘It was beyond belief’: Alaska Airlines removes passenger over mask dispute

A woman with a respirator mask seen on an airplane
Judy Ferguson took this selfie Saturday after she’d settled in to her seat on an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, before she was removed by airlines staff. (Photo courtesy of Judy Ferguson)

Judy Ferguson said she’d just settled-in Saturday for a flight to Seattle, where she was to talk with her doctor about treatment of her pulmonary fibrosis. She wore an N95 mask and visor while boarding, then changed into a respirator helmet, which looks sort of like what firefighters wear in a burning building. Soon after she was approached by an Alaska Airlines employee.

“The agent told me to take off my respirator helmet,” she said in an interview Monday. “I told him I’m 75, I have lung fibrosis, which is terminal. I’m going to critical appointments in Seattle, at University of Washington Medical Center. And I will not remove my ventilator helmet.”

Ferguson said she was trying to explain to the man, who she was told is a gate agent, that her respirator helmet was safer than the surgical mask that he was insisting she wear. Those are the light blue, fabric face coverings that, along with similarly designed cloth masks, complies with Alaska Airlines mandatory face mask policy.

But Ferguson said the agent gave her only a minute or so to explain before calling for his supervisor.

“The lead gate agent came, and she said, ‘I will not talk to you on this airplane. You have to get off the airplane and talk to me.’ So she said six times, ‘Get off the plane. That’s the only way that I will talk to you.’ And she never did talk to me.”

By then, Ferguson said, she’d removed her helmet and put the N95 and visor back on. She said she tried to explain to the agents that the N95 didn’t have an exhalation vent, so she wouldn’t exhale viruses and put fellow passengers at risk of contracting COVID-19.

She said she also tried to explain that she’d been told by Alaska Airlines personnel that that type of N95 complied with its policy. And, she said, she was told by a doctor at UW Medical Center that surgical masks offer only limited protection.

Two white police officers walk dodwn a marble staircase with brushed silver railings
Two Fairbanks International Airport police officers carry Ferguson’s luggage back to the main lobby after Ferguson was removed from the flight to Seattle. Ferguson posted this and several other photos depicting the events that unfolded Saturday at the airport. (Photo courtesy of Judy Ferguson)

“She told me that a surgical mask or a cloth mask do not offer any protection longer than 20 minutes in an enclosed environment,” Ferguson said. “I was going to be on the plane for about four and a half hours.”

But before she could explain all that, Ferguson said, a couple of Alaska Airlines workers grabbed her carry-on bags and escorted her off the airplane. She said she was met at the gate by an airport police officer, who forcefully escorted her to the ticket counter. She said an Alaska Airlines ticket agent offered to book her another flight in two hours if she calmed down. But she said she refused, and left the airport.

“I was emotionally violated,” Ferguson said. “I had tremendous stress. A bruise on my arm. And it was beyond belief!”

Ferguson is an author who’s spent the past 53 years in the Delta Junction area, where she and her husband raised three kids. She said she believes she was mistreated at the airport and that her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act were violated. Ferguson said Wednesday that she’d talked with a lawyer about the case, but decided against pursuing it. She said, however, Alaska Airlines should revisit its mask policy and ensure treatment of disabled customers complies with the ADA.

Spokespersons for both Alaska Airlines and the state Department of Transportation declined to talk about the incident and instead sent written statements in response to queries. A Transportation Department representative said Ferguson was uncooperative and disruptive. The Alaska Airlines rep said it has refunded the cost of her ticket and launched an internal investigation.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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