A new weight limit on wheelchairs boarding certain American Airlines flights inherently prevents many disabled travelers from flying.
American Airlines is taking another look at a policy that banned a blogger in a wheelchair from boarding a regional flight last month.
John Morris has always been an avid traveler — and when a 2012 car accident turned him into a triple amputee, he vowed to not let it slow him down. He’s since traveled to 46 countries in a wheelchair, and started the blog Wheelchair Travel, in which he shares his experiences and creates an online community for accessible travel.
On Oct. 21, he was getting ready to depart his home airport in Gainesville, Florida, for Dallas — his first trip since March after being sidelined by the pandemic — when he was rejected by American Airlines because of a new rule that prohibited the airline from flying his power wheelchair on the regional CRJ-700 jet on that route.
“The airline had implemented this new policy because they were damaging a large number of power wheelchairs loading them onto regional aircraft… [and] in order to protect my wheelchair, they were no longer willing to accept it on board,” Morris told NPR last week.
The new regulation puts a 300-pound limit on wheelchairs for this particular jet, but there hadn’t been any weight restrictions prior to that. With hefty motors and batteries, many power wheelchairs weigh more than 400 pounds.
But he didn’t see any weight limits on American Airlines’ site (and there don’t appear to be any now either). Instead, a representative told him that the rule had gone into effect on June 12.
The restriction was potentially a reaction to a 2018 federal requirement that airlines had to report every time a wheelchair was damaged or lost, which was averaging about 25 to 30 times a day before the pandemic, with American Airlines being one of the worst culprits. An American Airlines spokesperson denied to NPR that this was the cause of the issue, citing safety concerns, but Morris had flown the jet 21 times with American in the past, he wrote on his site.
To highlight just how many people this would affect, Morris wrote a post that showed 130 U.S. airports where power wheelchair users wouldn’t be able to fly.
But to fulfill his own wanderlust, he came up with another plan — shaving weight off of the wheelchair. “I took the wheelchair to my repair shop to have the articulating leg rest removed. Although the leg rest is medically necessary…I decided that I could go without it during this one trip. Since I have no feet, I was able to have the foot plates removed as well,” he wrote. “At the airport, I will have the airline remove [the] wheelchair’s batteries, each weighing approximately 51 pounds.”
The plan worked, though it took the airline’s staff 45 minutes to take off the batteries using the manual and YouTube videos — and they were then reinstalled incorrectly, leaving him stuck in his hotel room for 14 hours, he wrote in a Nov. 9 post.
After his story aired on NPR, American Airlines said in a statement: “We apologize for the confusion and will ensure all customers can travel wherever American flies.” The airline also told Dallas Morning News, “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. To our customers with disabilities, we hear you, and will continue to listen and work hard to improve your experience traveling with American.”
While that was being worked out, Morris switched to United Airlines, and flew on the same CRJ-700 jet with no issues. “Although my wheelchair far exceeded the arbitrary weight limit of 300 pounds that American has instituted, United welcomed it with open arms and a smile,” he wrote. “The baggage handlers responsible for loading the wheelchair came up to me proactively and offered assurances that it would be treated with extreme care.”
Morris is hopeful that the attention his story has received will help American change its restrictions, which he calls “unnecessary, unwarranted, and discriminatory.” And he calls out to others for assistance: “Help me keep up the pressure as American Airlines continues to drag its feet in reviewing changes to its policy,” since “equal access in air travel is a civil right.”