Business & Economy

A new rule means some people with wheelchairs can't fly on American Airlines

John Morris, here in Bogotá, Colombia, has a website called Wheelchair Travel and hosts a travel podcast.
John Morris, here in Bogotá, Colombia, has a website called Wheelchair Travel and hosts a travel podcast.
Andrea Morris

John Morris calls himself an "aviation geek." He's a frequent flyer who, in his power wheelchair, has traveled to 46 countries. His goal is to visit every country.

"I love air travel," he says. From takeoff and to the way the engines cut off right before touchdown, "that joy that I get from that is just so incredible."

After a car crash in 2012 that resulted in a triple amputation, Morris kept flying. He also started a website called Wheelchair Travel and hosts a travel podcast.

Now a new policy from one airline could limit the ability of some people such as Morris to fly. American Airlines, the largest airline in the United States, put in place a limit on the weight of a wheelchair, and now many power wheelchairs, such as the one Morris uses, are deemed too heavy to fly on smaller regional jets.

Morris was headed to the American West on Oct. 21 to write stories for his website. It was to be his first trip since March.

But at his airport in Gainesville, Florida, he was turned away. His wheelchair, with its motor and batteries, weighs more than 400 pounds. The new weight limit — there hadn't been one before — was 300 pounds for the jet he was booked to fly. At the airport, Morris checked with other airlines and was told they had not added weight limits for wheelchairs.

Morris filed a complaint with American Airlines and quickly got back a written response: "The wheelchair could not be loaded on the aircraft due to the weight limitations and the passenger could not leave the wheelchair behind, so he was denied boarding for the flight."

Morris says he could not find the policy on American's website but a representative he spoke to on the phone said the new weight limit began in June. "She told me that the airline had implemented this new policy because they were damaging a large number of power wheelchairs loading them onto regional aircraft," according to Morris. "And that in order to protect my wheelchair, they were no longer willing to accept it on board."

In 2018, the federal government started requiring an airline to report every time it damaged or lost a wheelchair. It turned out that was happening about 25 to 30 times a day — at least, before air travel fell during the coronavirus.

American Airlines has often had one of the worst rankings on those lists of airlines that damage or lose wheelchairs. In the most recent report from the Department of Transportation, for July, American mishandled 1.95 percent of the wheelchairs and scooters it carried, ranking 16th of 17 airlines and only ahead of Spirit Airlines, which mishandled 3.57 percent.

Stacy Day, a spokesperson for American Airlines, told NPR that the new rule, which bars wheelchairs that weigh more than 300 pounds from the smaller regional jets, was a safety issue — to meet the cargo requirements of the aircraft. "We do everything we can to safely accommodate mobility devices across our operation," the spokesperson wrote. "Each aircraft type has specific cargo floor weight and door dimension restrictions that are established by the aircraft manufacturer."

To Morris, that didn't make sense.

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

Morris' wheelchair is loaded onto an airplane.
Morris' wheelchair is loaded onto an airplane.
John Morris

The weight of a power wheelchair varies and is determined by components including batteries, motors, seating and systems that allow a wheelchair to tilt — which helps someone who can't move avoid painful skin ulcers — and other components. "A complex power wheelchair could start around 230 pounds and go up to 400 pounds or more," says Donald Clayback, executive director of the National Coalition for Assistive and Rehab Technology.

A federal law, the Air Carrier Access Act, says an airline cannot refuse to take a passenger on the basis of his disability. Kenneth Shiotani, an attorney with the National Disability Rights Network, looked through the Department of Transportation's regulations around that act and said he believes a weight limit on wheelchairs violates the act.

An airline can limit a wheelchair, based on size, if it doesn't fit through a plane's cargo doors. Morris lists those cargo door sizes on his website, Wheelchair Travel, so travelers can know in advance whether they need to modify a chair or use a different one before a flight. He knew, for instance, that the door on the Canadair Regional Jet model he was flying has a cargo door 33 inches high, large enough to take his wheelchair.

"We're worried that if this really is a policy of not taking 300-pound wheelchairs, the vast majority of power wheelchair users are not going to be able to fly," Shiotani says. "The batteries weigh a lot, the motors weigh a lot. They're kind of heavy."

Clayback says, "A limit of only 300 pounds will compromise access for people with disabilities who rely on more complex power wheelchairs. I'd estimate there are at least 250,000 to 300,000 people in the United States who use a complex power wheelchair that weighs over 300 pounds."

Most of those people, he estimates, don't travel by jet. But still, he says, at least tens of thousands do.

That travel is often essential, says Lee Page of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "He needs to get there for job opportunities, or get there because of family emergency or get there because he's got a health appointment," Page says. "And in some cases, the only way to get to that destination might be that flight."

Morris was traveling on Oct. 21 to New Mexico, South Dakota and Las Vegas to write stories for his website. Then he planned to travel on to Salt Lake City, where the city hired him to write a travel guide for wheelchair users.

After NPR asked American Airlines about the limit, the airline's spokesperson said the restriction would remain in place. But she said the airline had offered Morris an "apology" and an accommodation: Next time, American said it would take the batteries off his wheelchair. That might get the chair under the 300-pound weight limit.

Day said the airline will work with passengers "on a case-by-case basis" and that "in some instances, removing the batteries, which can weigh up to 50 pounds each, is a solution."

It may be a face-saving solution since the wheelchair and the batteries would weigh the same in the cargo hold. And also a time-consuming one that could lead to more reports of damage if the batteries don't get reassembled properly.

On Wednesday, Morris got to fly again. It took staff at American Airlines at the Gainesville airport forty-five minutes, he reports, to take the wheelchair apart.

He brought the owner's manual and staff pulled up YouTube videos on how to take off the batteries, Morris says.

At his next destination, where he had a stopover before transferring to a larger jet, he says workers were confused why the chair had been taken apart and asked him to put the batteries back on himself. "I said, 'I'm a triple amputee with one hand. I can't put these 40-, 50-pound batteries in the wheelchair and assemble it. All I can do is provide you with the instructions.' "

The chair was reassembled, and he got to his final destination, with one small part broken, Morris reports. But the hassle tested some of his love for airline adventure. "That has really impacted my enjoyment of travel," he says after he arrived at this hotel in Las Vegas, "and also it's made traveling with my wheelchair significantly harder."

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