American Airlines Reverses Wheelchair Weight Limits that Kept Disabled Travelers Off Regional Jets

Nov. 24, 2020

DALLAS — American Airlines says it has reversed a policy putting cargo weight limits on regional jets that inadvertently restricted many motorized wheelchairs after complaints from a wheelchair travel advocate.

Fort Worth-based American, which enacted a safety rule earlier this year to limit cargo weight to 300 or 400 pounds after guidance from plane manufacturers, said it has removed weight caps for mobility devices and wheelchairs after talking to its safety team and aircraft manufacturers.

"Those limits have been replaced with guidelines, approved and reviewed by the ( Federal Aviation Administration), that better reflect the ability of the cargo floor to support mobility devices and wheelchairs based on their distributed weight," said spokeswoman Stacy Day in an email. "We're confident that the modifications we've made will allow us to safely accommodate customers' wheelchairs and mobility devices on all of our aircraft."

American put the cargo weight limits in place in June, and it affected most of the airline's Embraer and Bombardier jets that serve about 130 destinations and smaller airports across the country, according to blogger John Morris, who discovered the problem.

The 300- and 400-pound weight limits meant that most standard motorized wheelchairs weren't allowed in their current condition.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely prevented the issue from being discovered earlier since motorized wheelchair users are likely to have other health conditions that stopped them from flying during the worldwide health crisis, Morris said.

American was caught off guard by the rule, which the company said it implemented to be in compliance with new Canadian flight regulations that required airlines to publish cargo weight limits for jets. The weight limits didn't impact cargo on larger jets such as Boeing and Airbus models so travel between the largest airports was still possible by avoiding the smaller planes.

The airline offered to help customers such a Morris, a triple amputee, by taking apart wheelchairs, removing batteries and otherwise trying to break up the weight of the equipment. But Morris said his wheelchair didn't function properly after one such attempt. He said the policy would likely discourage him from traveling on American, a difficult task considering it's a major provider at his hometown airport in Gainesville, Fla.

"The hardship that the earlier policy caused is confirmed to have been unnecessary and could have been avoided if American Airlines had first consulted with accessible travel experts like me," Morris said in an email.

"Although this policy reversal restores the freedom to travel by air to many disabled people, countless barriers remain," Morris said. "I would encourage all airlines to consider how their decisions, including reductions in seat pitch and limiting the size of onboard lavatories – have negatively impacted the disability community."

American worked quickly to revise the policy once it was notified, but it had to get approval from the FAA, which requires all aircraft rules and training documents to be okayed by the aviation regulator.

"We apologize for the confusion this has caused, and we value the feedback and outreach we've received from our community partners and customers in recent weeks," Day said. "We are committed to learning from this as we redouble our focus on improving the travel experience for our customers with disabilities."


(c)2020 The Dallas Morning News

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