A change to the wheelchair policy at American Airlines has quietly flown under the radar for months. The revised guidelines put weight restrictions on electric wheelchairs for certain flights that were previously capable of transporting the same mobility devices. The move appears to be a cost-cutting measure that could run afoul of federal regulations and disenfranchise countless travelers who rely on mobility devices.
The issue first started to get attention when accessible travel blogger John Morris wrote about his experience in October trying to board a flight on a route he’s taken many times. Morris is a triple-amputee who uses an electric wheelchair, enjoys travel, and maintains wheelchairtravel.org, a resource of tips and guidance for navigating the world from a wheelchair.
Morris wrote that he was trying to board an American Airlines flight from Gainesville, Florida to Dallas, Texas. He says that the flight was to be on a CRJ-700 aircraft that he’s flown on more than 50 times in the past, and 21 times with American, specifically. But on this trip, he was informed that his wheelchair which he self-reported as weighing 450 pounds was above the maximum weight limit for the aircraft.
This was Morris’s first flight since the novel coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the nation in March. He writes that he was told the policy changed on June 12 but he could not find the changes online. [The airline’s special assistance policies do not mention any weight limits for mobility devices.] A supervisor gave Morris the following list of the new weight limits for aircraft models:
- Embraer RJ-175 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer RJ-170 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer ERJ-145 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer ERJ-140 — 400 lbs.
- Canadair RJ 900 — 300 lbs.
- Canadair RJ 700 — 300 lbs.
The list ruled out the 450-pound Permobil F3 power wheelchair that he uses to get around and has flown with countless times, but he said that the new limits effectively ban most “complex rehab power wheelchairs produced by companies like Permobil, Quantum, and Quickie from regional jets on American Airlines.” Morris also found 130 airports in the U.S. where the new guidelines would affect travelers.
So, why is this happening if the weight has never been a problem before and why specifically target wheelchairs? Morris says that an Executive Liaison for American Airlines told him that the change to the rules came up because the airline was damaging too many wheelchairs in transit—an issue that seems entirely unrelated to cargo weight.
American did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment but a spokesperson for the company told NPR that it was a safety issue and “each aircraft type has specific cargo floor weight and door dimension restrictions that are established by the aircraft manufacturer.” This did not explain why Morris has been permitted to make the same trip on the same aircraft in the past.
Starting in 2018, airlines were required to report the damage done to wheelchairs on flights. The most recent report found that American Airlines had the second-worst record in the country for damaging wheelchairs. Kenneth Shiotani, an attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, told NPR that he believes these new restrictions violate the Air Carrier Access Act.
This week, American Airlines did allow Morris to fly but he had to remove the battery from his wheelchair before boarding despite the fact that the weight would be the same whether the chair was disassembled or not. Morris claimed that airline workers told him he had to reassemble it himself during a layover. That being physically impossible, the workers finally did it for him, and there was minor damage to the chair.
We’ll update this story when we hear more from American Airlines.
Update 2:40PM: A spokesperson for American Airlines sent us the following statement:
We’re committed to providing a positive travel experience for all of our customers. We do everything we can to safely accommodate mobility devices across our operation, and we will continue to proactively work with customers traveling with mobility devices.
Each aircraft type has specific cargo floor weight and door dimension restrictions that are established by the aircraft manufacturer. These restrictions are accounted for in our FAA-approved manuals, which are intended to ensure consistent high levels of safety.
We understand how critical these devices are to our customers, and in the past our team has worked with passengers who have wheelchairs or mobility devices that exceed the maximum weight limitations on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, removing the batteries, which can weigh up to 50 pounds each, is a solution. In some cases, we have disassembled parts of the devices and reassembled them upon arrival. When it is possible, we also work to adjust itineraries to help ensure the customer can get to their destination on a different aircraft.
Our team has begun a review of how we can both ensure high safety standards and protect the integrity of heavy mobility devices consistently across our operation, and our commitment to taking care of all of our customers during their journeys is unchanged.