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American Airlines Reverses Policy That Imposed Weight Limit On Wheelchairs

An American Airlines plane is seen at a gate at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on May 12, 2020.
An American Airlines plane is seen at a gate at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., on May 12, 2020.

American Airlines has reversed a policy that meant some people who use heavy wheelchairs could no longer fly on certain small regional jets.

The recent policy banned wheelchairs weighing more than 300 pounds from some of its smaller jets. Many power wheelchairs, with batteries and motors, weigh more than that.

The airline had already announced plans to review the new rule earlier this month, following an NPR report. Now American says the review is completed and it will end the weight limit.

American initially said it implemented the weight limit as a safety precaution, after Canadian authorities issued new guidance about cargo weight standards. In a statement to NPR on Monday, American said: "After close consultation with our safety team and our aircraft manufacturer partners, we've eliminated the conservative weight limits that temporarily impacted our ability to carry some mobility devices and wheelchairs on our smaller, regional aircraft."

The airline said the new guidelines had been "approved and reviewed" by the Federal Aviation Administration, and added: "We are committed to learning from this as we redouble our focus on improving the travel experience for our customers with disabilities."

John Morris, a frequent flyer and the founder of the website Wheelchair Travel, first noted the new policy after he was barred from taking a flight from Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 21. Morris, a triple amputee, says his wheelchair weighs around 400 pounds.

After Morris complained to the airline, it agreed to make an accommodation on future flights: It would take the batteries off of his chair to reduce the weight. When he returned to the airport on Oct. 28, the airline honored its accommodation, but not without difficulty. Morris says the ground crew pulled up videos on YouTube to figure out how to take off the batteries.

Morris was still traveling when American announced it would review the policy. Although the weight limit on wheelchairs was still in effect when Morris returned to Gainesville on Nov. 10, he says the grounds crew loaded the wheelchair without taking it apart.

On Monday morning, an airline service representative left a voicemail for Morris to announce the change.

"It's great news that people are not going to have to be needlessly removing the batteries from their power wheelchairs," Morris says about the airline's reversal.

Other flyers who use wheelchairs got personal notification from American as well, including Kelly Mack, a Washington, D.C. public relations specialist. "It's a huge relief that American Airlines decided to reverse a clearly discriminatory policy," says Mack.

Morris writes about good places to travel for people who use wheelchairs, but he is also a frequent critic of the hassles of flying. Now he's turning his attention back to some of those other issues. For instance, the policy change on weight limits, he says, "hasn't changed the fact that a large number of wheelchairs are still being damaged by airlines."

The FAA, in 2018, began requiring airlines to report when a wheelchair was lost or damaged. Before the pandemic, it was a frequent issue, happening about 25 to 30 times a day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.