Delta Junction author kicked off flight after a fight over her mask

A sign at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport near where people can get tested for COVID-19 (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)
A sign at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

An elderly Delta Junction woman with lung disease says she was mistreated and manhandled Saturday by Alaska Airlines personnel and Fairbanks International Airport police when they removed 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 planned to talk with her doctor about treatment of her pulmonary fibrosis. She wore an N95 mask and visor while boarding, but an Alaska Airlines employee approached her when she changed into a respirator helmet, which resembles what firefighters wear in a burning building.

“The agent told me to take off my respirator helmet,” Ferguson said. “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 insisted she wear. Those are the light-blue fabric face-coverings that, along with similarly designed cloth masks, comply with the 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,” Ferguson said.

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 exhalation vents, so she wouldn’t exhale viruses and put fellow passengers at risk of contracting COVID-19. She also said she tried to explain that Alaska Airlines had told her earlier that her equipment complied with its policy.

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 a ticket agent offered to book another flight in two hours, if she calmed down. But she refused and left the airport.

“I was emotionally violated,” she 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.

She 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. 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.

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