Air travel has always been the stuff of nightmares for wheelchair users. If we’re not worrying about our wheelchairs getting damaged or lost, we’re freaking out over possibly getting dropped or hurt during aisle transfers. Unfortunately, now thanks to American Airlines, we can add being denied boarding to the list.
On October 21, popular accessible travel writer John Morris of WheelchairTravel.org went to his local airport in Gainesville, Florida and checked in for a flight on an American Airlines CRJ-700 regional jet to Roswell, New Mexico. These are small single-aisle jet aircraft with a two-by-two seating configuration, and can usually only carry approximately 50 (CRJ-200) to 70 (CRJ-700) passengers. John has flown on these jets with American Airlines many times before. However, on this particular day, he was denied boarding because his power wheelchair was too heavy, according to the airline.
On its face, the boarding denial isn’t that unusual. Every single airplane has a size limitation for its cargo hold, based on the dimensions of the hold door. Officially, according to most airline regulations, if any wheelchair cannot fit through an airplane cargo hold door while upright, the airlines will not transport the wheelchair. In order to accommodate many wheelchair passengers, ground crew will fudge the “upright” requirement and tip a wheelchair over on its side to fit it through the cargo hold door. While this allows more wheelchair users to fly, it’s also the cause of most power wheelchair damage.
However, this case was strange because John had flown on these regional jets many times before, including with American Airlines, and as recently as late February 2020. According to his interview with New Mobility magazine, while going through the regular check-in process, the airline agent told him the problem wasn’t with his wheelchair’s size, but rather its weight.
Apparently, the airline had quietly changed its rules about allowable wheelchair weight on regional jets on June 12, and neither posted them on its website, nor indicated the new limitations at any point during the online flight booking process. Per New Mobility:
American claims there is no new policy, but it did post information about its aircraft, including weight and dimensions for items carried in the cargo compartment, on its website and internal platforms over the summer. What remains unclear is what has changed to justify these wheelchair weight limits.
John flies so much with American airlines that he holds Executive Platinum status, so he was able to reach out to an airline liaison and inquire about this limitation. He told New Mobility, “What she told me was that American instituted this new policy because they’re concerned about damaging customers’ wheelchairs.” I was unhappy and unsatisfied with this response, so I decided to reach out to American Airlines myself.
Over the next few days, I began an email exchange with Stacy Day at American Airlines Media Relations. In her first email reply to my inquiry, Day stated the following:
To follow up, we sincerely regret that Mr. Morris had a negative experience with us. Our team is looking into this, and we have reached out to him to apologize and hear his concerns. We’re dedicated to providing a positive travel experience for of all customers. We do all we can to safely accommodate mobility devices, though there are limits on the weight and size of items we can load into the cargo hold of our smaller aircraft.
I wasn’t happy with this response. I asked her where a wheelchair user could find specifics about these limits, and where a wheelchair user might be made aware of these limitations during the booking process so as to prevent booking a flight on an aircraft where they might be denied boarding. This is the response I received:
We do all we can to safely accommodate mobility devices, though we are limited in the weight and size of items we can load onto our smaller aircraft. While we have previously transported Mr. Morris’s mobility device on a similar aircraft type, we determined that we could not carry it properly in this case. That decision was made with the safe transport of his mobility device in mind, as well as the safety of our team members who load these important items onto our aircraft. We sincerely regret that Mr. Morris had this experience, and we are committed to learning from this as we make every effort to better serve our customers with disabilities.
This is still didn’t answer my questions, and didn’t specify what was different about this particular case. The type of aircraft had not changed, and neither had the weight of John’s wheelchair. I pressed Day again, asking her to confirm that this was not a blanket ban on wheelchairs weighing over 300 pounds, and that these determinations were being made on a case-by-case basis. This was her reply:
We’re dedicated to providing a positive travel experience for all of our customers, including those who need special assistance with wheelchairs or other mobility devices. We make every effort to accommodate every device.
As you can see, I was still clearly not getting anywhere. I had planned on giving up, but the following day I received a message from Day indicating that she may have more information for me. Last night, I got this final reply from American Airlines:
We’re committed to providing a positive travel experience for all of our customers. Our team is thoroughly reviewing this issue, and we have been in touch with Mr. Morris to apologize and hear his concerns.
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 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. 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.
We are refunding Mr. Morris’s Roswell ticket and are working with him to ensure his future travel goes smoothly. We will continue to proactively work with customers traveling with mobility devices, because our commitment to taking care of all of our customers during their journeys is unchanged.
Unfortunately, this is still doesn’t explain why John was denied boarding on this particular flight, particularly because he had flown on this aircraft with that wheelchair many times before. If that plane was overloaded or the weight distribution was an issue on that day, why was this not explained to him? There’s also the discrepancy between what the counter agent said about preventing potential wheelchair damage versus what the airline representative told him about weight limitations.
American Airlines is already unpopular with wheelchair users, having the highest rates of wheelchair loss and damage among major US airlines. Its on-time flight arrival performance for 2019 was 78 percent, which means many missed flights during connections for wheelchair users since we are always the last ones off the plane, and often have to wait a long time for our wheelchairs to be returned to us.
The implications of these new and unpublished restrictions are severe. Hundreds of smaller airports around the country only have regional air service, and sometimes are served by only one airline. In John’s case, his home airport is also served by Delta, which has no such weight restrictions on wheelchairs for its regional jets. However, John’s destination airport in Roswell is only served by American Airlines, making this a no-go for his planned travel.
This will also ultimately mean considerably more work for wheelchair users who need to fly on an American Airlines regional jet. Wheelchair users will need to pay closer attention to the aircraft being used on each leg of their flight plan when booking, keeping in mind that aircraft can be switched out on a moment’s notice. They will need to call American Airlines before booking to see if they will be denied boarding based on the weight of their wheelchairs, as there is no vetting or filtering process for this during online booking through the American Airlines website.
Finally, wheelchair users will also need to understand that even after all of this is done, they can still be denied boarding at the airport on the day of their flight as John was. The Air Carrier Access Act says the following about wheelchair stowage on aircraft in Section 382.125(b):
You must give wheelchairs, other mobility aids, and other assistive devices priority for stowage in the baggage compartment over other cargo and baggage. Only items that fit into the baggage compartment and can be transported consistent with FAA, PHMSA, TSA, or applicable foreign government requirements concerning security, safety, and hazardous materials with respect to the stowage of items in the baggage compartment need be transported.
The Air Carrier Access Act also says the following about wheelchair stowage on aircraft in Section 382.127(a):
Whenever baggage compartment size and aircraft airworthiness considerations do not prohibit doing so, you must, as a carrier, accept a passenger’s battery-powered wheelchair or other similar mobility device, including the battery, as checked baggage, consistent with the requirements of 49 CFR 175.10(a)(15) and (16) and the provisions of paragraphs (b) through (f) of this section.
It’s perfectly reasonable to assert that an ACAA violation occurred when John was denied boarding, especially since he had never experienced this issue with American Airlines before. The airline has also clearly not demonstrated how the weight of John’s wheelchair on October 21 was not consistent with government requirements concerning security or safety, or posed a problem with regards to baggage compartment size or aircraft airworthiness.
However, the truth of the matter is that airlines can interpret these vague references however they like. In John’s case, here’s how American Airlines interpreted the ACAA:
If the physical size of the compartment — its actual dimensions, not crowding caused by other items — do not permit a wheelchair to be carried upright safely without risk of serious damage to the wheelchair, or a load imbalance caused by a large wheelchair in a small baggage compartment may violate weight and balance safety requirements, carriers could legitimately decline transportation of the item on that flight.
To be clear, this is not the verbatim transcript of what the ACAA says, but rather how American Airlines has chosen to interpret its ability to deny boarding to passengers with large or heavy power wheelchairs.
Power wheelchair users now have some important decisions to make when choosing an air carrier. If you have a wheelchair that weighs over the maximum allowable weight (300 lbs in John’s case), and you have no choice but to fly on an American Airlines regional jet because of your home airport, or an airport enroute to your final destination, you have to decide if it’s worth it to drive to another airport that uses larger aircraft, or use different airports serviced by other airlines. This may not even be an option for you if accessible transportation is not readily available at your intended destination.
Another option is to remove parts of your wheelchair to bring the total weight down below the max weight for that flight. Battery removal can accomplish this, but is often a long and complicated process which can lead to potential wheelchair damage by ground crew with no experience in doing this. The ultimate option is not to fly on American Airlines at all, but as I’ve mentioned before, for geographic reasons, this may not be feasible for some wheelchair users.
Your best option is to do thorough research on flight combinations, airports, and the types of aircraft used between them if you have to fly on American Airlines. Call the airline special assistance department at 800-433-7300 before you book your flight and explain the dimensions and weight of your wheelchair. Take down all the details of the phone call and the name of the representative, and if possible, get the approval or denial in writing. If you are approved to fly, bring that information with you to the airport in case that approval turns to a denial on the date of your flight.
Legally speaking, I think the cards are stacked against us based on the multiple ways that the ACAA can be interpreted when it comes to flight safety and the weight of heavy power wheelchairs. However, it’s more important than ever for us to be vocal about our needs, our rights to equal access in air transportation, and our displeasure when we cannot be accommodated.