The Air Carrier Access Act, a federal law, prevents airlines from refusing travel to individuals based solely on their disabilities, yet a new restriction American Airlines allegedly introduced this past June, seems to be doing just that. Although not stated on their website, the weight of wheelchairs permitted to be stored in the cargo area of certain regional jets has now been limited to a maximum of 300 pounds, and others to 400 pounds. This new restriction prevents the majority of individuals with power wheelchairs from traveling to over 130 major airports, based solely on the weight of their mobility devices.
John Morris, a triple amputee and creator of Wheelchair Travel, discovered this new restriction the hard way. When traveling from Gainesville, FL to Dallas, Texas in his 450-pound wheelchair, he was forbidden to travel on the Canadair CRJ-700, an aircraft he had traveled on many times before. As one of the leading authorities on accessible travel, he had become accustomed to familiarizing himself with the cargo measurements of aircrafts to ensure he didn’t have to modify his chair in any way prior to travel, but was never informed of the new weight restriction.
As a frequent flyer, John had traveled on this specific aircraft type over 50 times with no issues, 21 of which were with American Airlines, so the undocumented new restriction came as even more of a surprise. When John questioned the abrupt policy change, he was told by an American Airlines Executive Liaison that it was put into effect due to the large number of wheelchairs that were damaged while loading them into the cargo unit of regional jets. You can learn more about John’s story here.
On November 3, American Airlines issued a statement to Simple Flying stating that:
We do everything we can to safely accommodate mobility devices across our operation. 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 weight limitations on a case by case basis. In some cases, removing the batteries, which can weigh up to 50 pounds each, is a solution. Our team has done a review on how we can both ensure high safety standards and protect the integrity of heavy mobility devices consistently across our operation.
We are refunding Mr. Morris’s Roswell ticket and are working with him to ensure his future travel goes smoothly. We will continue to work proactively with customers traveling with mobility devices, because our commitment to taking care of all of our customers during their journey is unchanged.
Disassembling wheelchairs to lessen their weight may be an alternative, but does not come without risks of damage, and is very time consuming. As it stands now, unless American Airlines decides to amend their new policy or a new mandate comes from the government requiring them to do so, individuals with heavy wheelchairs may have to make alternative travel plans.