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.
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.