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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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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Eagle Lift Not Allowed on Southwest Flight

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I’m sure you’ve probably read about the “Jon Morrow Incident” on Southwest Airlines, as quite frankly, it’s been all over the internet. Mr. Morrow, who has a fused spine and brittle bones, tried to fly unsuccessfully on Southwest Airlines last month with his Eagle Lift. Although the Eagle Lift is used to transfer wheelchair-users to their airplane seats in some parts of the UK, Canada and Australia, it’s not the norm – or even required — in the US.

Originally Southwest told Mr. Morrow that he could bring his lift so his aides could use it to transfer him to the airline seat, but the airline subsequently informed him that he would not be allowed to use and transport his Eagle Lift. The airline instead offered him the use of the aisle chair, which is standard in the US.

Was the airline wrong in doing this?

Well the airline was wrong for initially telling Mr. Morrow that he would be allowed to bring and use his Eagle Lift; but legally I think they are on firm ground for their final decision. Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines are required to provide boarding assistance that includes “boarding wheelchairs an/or on-board wheelchairs”. They did offer Mr. Morrow that type of  boarding assistance, and there is no requirement for the airline to allow passenger-provided equipment such as the Eagle Lift.

It’s true that other airlines use the Eagle Lift for boarding, but I’m sure they’ve never had a request to transport one, as Mr. Morrow himself stated, “I’m the only individual in the world who owns one.” I expect Southwest’s big concern was in their their ability to safely transport this $15,000 piece of equipment without damaging it.

According to Southwest Airlines, “In this instance, the customer was informed that we do not have boarding procedures for the safe use of his personal Eagle Lift device, nor do our employees have training for storage of the device. This final decision was made after reviewing the device’s specifications and the requirements for transporting it and the customer safely.”

I’m sorry this happened to Mr. Morrow, but Southwest was within their right to not allow the Eagle Lift on board.

On the plus side, something positive may come out of this, as Southwest also said that they are “in contact with the manufacturer of this device to learn more about the device’s unique handling and storage requirements.” So who knows, maybe things will change in the future, and they will voluntarily allow the use and transport of this device. But like I said, for now, they are operating under the letter of the law.

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Airline Organization Urges DOT to Redefine “Service Animal”

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New Service Animal FAQs from the DOJ

Airlines for America (AIA) — an airline industry group — recently announced that it had submitted a 222-page document to the Department of Transportation (DOT), in response to a call for input on possible revisions to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The group’s response included the suggestion that the DOT narrow the definition of “service animal” to “trained dogs that perform a task or work for an individual with a disability.” The document also included the recommendation that airlines should not be required to allow emotional support animals (ESOs) on board. Continue reading

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Airlines Tighten Leash on Emotional Support Animals

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peacockIn response to a New York artist’s failed attempt to pass off her pet peacock (Dexter) as an emotional support animal on a recent United Airlines flight, the airline responded by tightening their emotional support animal policies beginning on March 1, 2018. Continue reading

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Judge Delays Implementation of Airline Disability Regs

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airplane_landing_199029In the final days of 2018, US District Court Judge John Bates dealt another blow to disability advocates, by further delaying the implementation of rules designed to track the number assistive devices damaged by US airlines. This Obama-era regulation was scheduled to go onto effect on January 1, 2018 until it was postponed another year by President Trump, under his agenda to reduce business regulations. Continue reading

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