American Eagle planes parked outside their gates at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport. (Smiley N. Pool / The Dallas Morning News / TNS)
DALLAS – American Airlines claims it has rolled back a policy to limit the cargo weight of regional jets that inadvertently restricted many motorized wheelchairs following complaints from a wheelchair travel advocate.
The Fort Worth-based American, who enacted a safety rule earlier this year to limit cargo weight to 300 or 400 pounds as directed by aircraft manufacturers, removed weight restrictions on mobility devices and wheelchairs after talking to his security team and aircraft manufacturers.
“These limits have been replaced with guidelines approved and reviewed by the (Federal Aviation Administration) that reflect the loading floor’s ability to support mobility aids and wheelchairs based on their distributed weight,” spokeswoman Stacy Day said in an email. “We are confident that with the changes we have made, we can safely accommodate customers’ wheelchairs and mobility aids on all of our aircraft.”
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According to John Morris, the blogger at Wheelchairtravel.org who discovered the problem, American Airlines set cargo weight limits in June and affected most of the airline’s Embraer and Bombardier jets, which serve about 130 destinations and smaller airports across the country serve.
The 300 and 400 pound weight restrictions resulted in most standard motorized wheelchairs being banned in their current condition.
The COVID-19 pandemic likely prevented the problem from being discovered earlier, as motorized wheelchair users are likely to have other health issues that kept them from flying during the global health crisis, Morris said.
American was surprised by the rule the company said complied with Canada’s new flight regulations that required airlines to post cargo weight restrictions on jets. The weight restrictions did not affect the cargo of larger jets such as Boeing and Airbus models, so travel between the major airports was still possible by avoiding the smaller planes.
The airline offered to help clients like Morris, a triple amputee, by disassembling wheelchairs, removing batteries, and otherwise trying to break up the weight of the equipment. But Morris said his wheelchair did not work properly after such an attempt. He said politics would likely prevent him from traveling with Americans, a difficult task considering it is a large operator at his home airport in Gainesville, Florida.
“The harshness caused by previous policies has been confirmed as unnecessary and could have been avoided if American Airlines had first consulted accessible travel experts like me,” Morris said in an email.
“Although this policy reversal is restoring the freedom of many disabled people to travel by air, myriad obstacles remain,” said Morris. “I encourage all airlines to reflect on how their choices, including reducing seat spacing and limiting the size of on-board toilets, have negatively affected the disabled community.”
American worked quickly to revise the policy as soon as it was notified, but had to seek FAA approval that all flight rules and training materials must be approved by the Aviation Administration.
“We apologize for the confusion this has caused and we appreciate the feedback and reach we have received from our community partners and customers over the past few weeks,” said Day. “We are determined to learn from this by increasing our focus on improving the travel experience for our customers with disabilities.”
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