American Airlines Wheelchair Weight Limit Excludes Some People With Disabilities A new policy from American Airlines, the largest airline in the United States, put a limit on the weight of a wheelchair. Now, many power wheelchairs are too heavy to fly on smaller regional jets.

A New Rule Means Some People With Wheelchairs Can't Fly On American Airlines

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During this pandemic, airlines are hurting for customers. Now a new policy from one airline is preventing some people who use wheelchairs from traveling at all. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: John Morris calls himself an aviation geek.

JOHN MORRIS: I love air travel. It's on the way to that takeoff and to the engines cutting out right before touchdown. That joy that I get from that is just so incredible.

SHAPIRO: Morris is a frequent flyer. After a car crash in 2012 that resulted in a triple amputation, he's traveled to 46 countries in his wheelchair. He started a website called Wheelchair Travel. He was headed to the American West on October 21 to write stories for his website. It was to be his first trip since March. But at his airport in Gainesville, Fla., he was turned away. An employee for American Airlines told him they could no longer fly him or, more specifically, his power wheelchair on their regional jets.

MORRIS: And she told me the airline had implemented this new policy because they were damaging a large number of power wheelchairs loading them on to regional aircraft and that in order to protect my wheelchair, they were no longer willing to accept it on board.

SHAPIRO: In 2018, the federal government started requiring an airline to report every time it damaged or lost a wheelchair. Turned out it was happening about 25 to 30 times a day, at least before the coronavirus. American Airlines had one of the worst records. The airline's new policy bars wheelchairs that weigh more than 300 pounds from some regional jets. A spokesperson for American Airlines told NPR that the new rule was a safety issue to meet weight limits for cargo on the aircraft. To Morris, that didn't make sense.

MORRIS: My wheelchair has been carried on this exact flight, on the same aircraft at the same airline so many times. Nothing has changed - not on the wheelchair's part. The aircraft hasn't changed. The only thing that's changed is that the airline has made a decision to exclude me.

SHAPIRO: Other airlines told Morris they'll still fly his wheelchair. Kenneth Shiotani, an attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, says the new rules could stop lots of wheelchair users from flying.

KENNETH SHIOTANI: We're worried that if this really is a policy of not taking 300-pound wheelchairs, the vast majority of power wheelchair users are probably not going to be able to fly. The batteries weigh a lot. The motors weigh a lot. You know, they're kind of heavy.

SHAPIRO: Shiotani looked through the regulations for the Air Carrier Access Act. That's the law that bans discrimination against people with disabilities in airline travel. Shiotani thinks the weight limit on wheelchairs violates that law. The American Airlines spokesperson said it will accept an accommodation for John Morris, one that Morris says he suggested. It will take the batteries off his wheelchair. That should get the chair under the weight limit, even though the total weight - wheelchair and batteries - will be the same.

A week later, Morris flew again. We talked again after he arrived in Las Vegas.

MORRIS: None of the staff were happy about having to do this.

SHAPIRO: He gave airline workers the instruction manual for taking off the batteries. They consulted YouTube videos.

MORRIS: That has really impacted my enjoyment of travel. And also, it's made traveling with my wheelchair significantly harder.

SHAPIRO: American Airlines says the weight limit on wheelchairs remains. But after NPR first ran a story on our website, npr.org, last week, American announced it has started a review of the policy. For now, it says it will work to accommodate travelers who use heavy wheelchairs on a case-by-case basis.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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