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‘It was beyond belief!’: Alaska Airlines Removes ‘Disruptive’ Passenger Over Facemask Dispute

Judy Ferguson

An elderly Delta Junction woman with lung disease says she was mistreated and manhandled Saturday by Alaska Airlines personnel and Fairbanks International Airport police as they were removing her from a plane because she refused to wear the type of mask the airline requires.

Judy Ferguson says 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, when 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 says 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 he was insisting that she wear. Those are the light-blue fabric face-covering that, along with similarly designed cloth masks, complies with Alaska Airlines mandatory facemask policy. But she says 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 says she’d removed her helmet and put the N95 and visor back on. She says 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 also tried to explain she’d been told by Alaska Airlines personnel that that type of N95 complied with its policy. And that she was told by a doctor at UW Medical Center that surgical masks offer only limited protection.

“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 4-and-a-half hours.”

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

Credit Judy Ferguson
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.

“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 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 says, 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 says Ferguson was uncooperative and disruptive. The Alaska Airlines rep says it has refunded the cost of her ticket and launched an internal investigation.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.