Airline Policy Bans Some Wheelchairs From Flights
DALLAS — American Airlines is reviewing a policy change this summer that may have banned travelers from bringing many motorized wheelchairs on its regional jets and cut off more than 100 destinations to travelers with disabilities.
American Airlines frequent flyer and triple amputee John Morris, who took seven months off from air travel during the pandemic, said he was surprised to find the carrier wouldn’t let him bring his motorized wheelchair on a flight from Gainesville, Fla., to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in late October due to new weight limitations on cargo on regional jets.
The rule, which American said was changed after Canadian law required the carrier to publish cargo weight limitations for jets that travel to that country, put limits of 300 or 400 pounds on luggage and other cargo.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
That’s well under the 450-pound weight of Morris’ motorized wheelchair, which he said is a common model issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other suppliers.
“I get to the airport and I’m checking in and they tell me that my wheelchair is too heavy for the plane,” said Morris, who blogs about his travels on his website Wheelchairtravel.org. “I had never heard of this happening, and, to be honest, a lot of people in wheelchairs probably aren’t traveling during the pandemic for health reasons.”
The new policy applies to six models of Embraer and Bombardier planes that make up the entirety of American’s 550-plane regional fleet. Those planes fly between major destinations but are the workhorse jets to 130 of American’s 230 U.S. destinations.
That includes both Gainesville and Roswell, N.M., the final destination for Morris on the trip.
American Airlines is looking to change the policy after Morris brought attention to it, a spokeswoman for the Fort Worth-based airline said.
“In order to comply with a new Canadian regulation that went into effect in June, we published conservative maximum weights for each aircraft type,” said spokeswoman Stacy Day. “Upon further review, we are working with our safety team, the aircraft manufacturers and the FAA to modify these limits to continue to safely accommodate heavy mobility devices and wheelchairs on our smaller, regional aircraft.”
It could take some time for American to make the changes because the published weight specifications need clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.
In the meantime, American will “proactively work with affected passengers to accommodate them,” Day said.
“To our customers with disabilities, we hear you, and will continue to listen and work hard to improve your experience traveling with American,” she said.
But until the policy is changed, Morris said it “effectively bans” power wheelchair users from those 130 airports and creates a “transportation desert” for dozens of airports served only by American Airlines.
The issue also adds to ongoing problems that American has had with wheelchairs.
American consistently ranks among the worst airlines for damaging or losing wheelchairs and scooters, ranking last out of the 10 major carriers in 2019. In all, about 2% of wheelchairs and scooters on American flights are reported damaged or lost, according to reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In reality, Morris said damaged wheelchairs are much more common than reported.
“Sometimes (wheelchair users) don’t notice the damage until after the fact or they think it’s a minor issue or cosmetic until it starts causing problems later,” he said.
Morris had to scrap his trip to Roswell and reschedule a few days later after having parts of his wheelchair removed to cut down on weight. Then a crew from American took out batteries and removed other parts of the wheelchair to get it under the limit, putting it back together after landing at the final destination.
After the chair was dismantled and reassembled, he said he’s had problems with the power supply.
Wheelchairs like his commonly cost between $25,000 and $45,000, Morris said, so it’s not cost-effective to find a slimmer model just to travel. Plus, the wheelchair is customized to be as comfortable as possible while sitting all day.
“For trips that are purely leisure, I may have to reduce flying,” Morris said. “Or I might have to see if I can fly on Delta or someone else that lets me bring my wheelchair.”
© 2020 The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC