Airline Damaged Wheelchairs — It’s Now a Life or Death Situation

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Ask any wheelchair-user about the problems with accessible travel, and most likely the issue of the airlines damaging or losing wheelchairs will come up. I’ve been covering accessible travel for over 25 years and writing about lost and damaged wheelchairs for at least that long. It’s a huge issue.

Unfortunately now the subject has taken on a deadly twist. A woman has lost her life because United Airlines nearly destroyed her customized power wheelchair.

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Will You Ever be Able to Stay in Your Own Wheelchair on an Airplane? A US Access Board Report

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The US Access Board recently released the results of a study on the feasibility of installing wheelchair securement systems on passenger aircraft. This study was mandated by Congress, sponsored by the US Access Board, and conducted by the specially appointed Transportation Research Board (TRB). Continue reading

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Airline Mask Exemption for Disabled Passengers? Plan Ahead

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On February 1, 2021 the Center for Disease Control issued new requirements for mandatory mask wearing on all interstate transportation, including US airlines. Although most airlines already required masks, this CDC order makes masking-up a requirement for most people to fly. There are however a few exceptions.

  • Children under 2
  • Cases where it would create a workplace safety issue
  • Passengers who cannot safely wear a mask due to a disability

That said, it’s not like you can just stroll up to the gate and declare that you are going mask-free due to your disability. Some advance preparation is required. First and foremost, contact your airline, because exemption policies will likely differ from carrier to carrier.

For example, as of February 1, 2021 American Airlines requires customers who are unable to wear a face mask due to their disability, to contact the Special Assistance department at least 72 hours in advance. Documentation from a licensed health care provider as well as a negative COVID-19 test are also required.

Some airlines may also require passengers requesting mask exemptions to:

  • Request this accommodation in advance
  • Check in early
  • Be evaluated by the airline’s medical expert

And then there are other airlines that remain silent regarding a medical exemption from wearing face masks. Personally I would check the airline’s exemption policy before I booked a flight if I was unable to mask-up due to a disability.

It’s good that a medical exemption is now possible, but the key phrase here is “plan ahead”.

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DOT Releases Updated Service Animal Regulations for Air Travel

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In an ongoing effort to keep up with changing times, the Department of Transportation (DOT) recently released their updated rules for air travel with service animals. This rule replaces the previous one (http://barrierfreetravels.com/2019/10/dot-updates-acaa-service-animal-regulations/ ). which was released in October 2018.

While the previous rule increased the documentation required to fly with an emotional support animal, this update classifies emotional support animals as pets. The rule is expected to take effect in early 2021, 30 days after it’s published in the Federal Register. Here are the highlights of the new guidelines. Continue reading

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Flyer Beware – American Airlines Limits Wheelchair Weight

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On October 21, 2020, veteran airline passenger John Morris encountered a new hiccup in the world of wheelchair travel. That’s when American Airlines ground personnel at Gainesville Regional Airport  refused to load his power wheelchair on his flight to Dallas.

Why?

Because it weighed in at over 300 pounds.

Can they do that? Doesn’t the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibit things like that? Well, yes and no. Although American Airlines quoted a passage in the discussion section of the old  May 13, 2008 ACAA update, the spirit of the law probably still applies, and at least gives them some wiggle room.

The issue apparently is with American’s smaller aircraft —  the Bombardier CRJ700 in this case. It’s unknown if the airline  just doesn’t want to risk possible wheelchair damage or if it is truly a safety issue. But apparently their new weight limit regulation for wheelchairs went into effect on June 12, 2020.

The current version of the ACAA touches on this issue in §382.127:

“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.”

So the argument could be made that if the compartment size and/or aircraft airworthiness are an issue, then an airline can indeed prohibit carrying wheelchairs over 300 pounds on smaller aircraft. I’m sure the attorneys will sort it all out somewhere down the line, but for now what’s a wheelchair-user to do?

First off, right now I would avoid American Airlines. I’ve not heard of any other carriers that have instituted this new policy, but that’s not to say that they won’t. Keep an eye on the special services section of your airline’s website to see if any new limitations pop up.

Second, know the weight of your wheelchair. Five pounds can make a big difference. If possible take off any equipment, like the footrests that could lighten the load a bit. And remember to take along a bag to put them in.

Ask the airline if they would consider removing the battery. This could also lighten the load.

Last but not least, become familiar with aircraft choices. In most cases you don’t have a choice of aircraft when flying into regional airports, but sometimes you do at larger hubs. Go for the larger aircraft whenever possible.

And I guess the best thing that everyone can do, is to just be aware of this issue. Although it’s not the ideal solution, knowledge in this case is power. Give you hard earned money to another air carrier – one that will carry your heavy wheelchair.

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After the Super Shuttle Shutdown – What’s a Wheelchair-User to Do?

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Super Shuttle – which once provided accessible and affordable airport transfers – abruptly closed it’s doors for good on December 31, 2019. And that closure left a lot of wheelchair-users scratching their heads and trying to find a suitable replacement for airport pick-ups and drop-offs. Although there’s not a suitable across the board replacement, these suggestions may help you sort out the issue on an airport-by-airport basis. Continue reading

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Proposed Regulation on Accessible Lavatories on Narrow Body Aircraft Open for Public Comment

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On December 11, 2019 the Department of Transportation (DOT) opened public comments for a proposed amendment to the Air Carrier Access Act, that would require accessible lavatories and on-board wheelchairs on single aisle aircraft that have 125 or more seats. Currently accessible lavatories are only required on wide body jets. Continue reading

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DOT Updates ACAA Service Animal Regulations

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In August 8, 2019 the Department of Transportation issued a “Final Statement of Enforcement Policies Regarding Service Animals on Flights”. This document, which clarifies some points in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) in regards to service animals and emotional support animals, is the result of a public process which began in May 2018. This process was initiated after the DOT received a number of airline complaints about passengers who were skirting the rules and evading pet carrier fees by falsely claiming that their pets were needed for emotional support. Over 4,500 public comments were received after the Preliminary Rule was posted. Continue reading

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