John Morris is a frequent traveler in regular times, but a recent policy change with American Airlines is preventing him from flying from his local airport with them. Despite the fact that he uses a motorized wheelchair, John has traveled worldwide since an accident at age 23 left him as a triple amputee. An inspiration to many disabled and non-disabled travelers alike, John travels the world solo and fights for disabled users’ rights to travel with the same freedoms as their able-bodied counterparts. His website, Wheelchair Travel, offers vital information for disabled travelers on airlines, destinations, and hotels.
After the accident, his first trip abroad was a solo trip to Beijing, China, of which most of us would be hesitant, let alone in a wheelchair. Despite a significant hiccup that left him stranded on a sidewalk in Beijing with no battery left on his wheelchair, he wasn’t deterred and has continued to travel, visiting 46 countries. His ultimate goal is to visit every country.
John had spent most of the pandemic at home in Florida but decided to book a trip to the US West Coast from his local airport, Gainsville, as usual. When he turned up for his flight, he was denied boarding as American Airlines said they could not transport his wheelchair due to its weight. John had flown multiple times with the same wheelchair and from Gainville.
When he asked to see the written policy, he was informed by American Airlines verbally that from June 2020 onwards, American would no longer accept wheelchairs over 300lb on their regional jets. This effectively means that many electric wheelchair users will be unable to fly with American Airlines from up to 130 airports in the US that use regional jets. A wheelchair like the one John uses weighs approximately 400lb.
Other airlines do not have the same policy, and John was told at the time it had been introduced as many wheelchairs were being damaged when loading due to the cargo door shape and size on the smaller regional jets. Ultimately by not damaging so many wheelchairs, the airline will not have to pay for the repairs, saving them money. American does not have a great track record when it comes to damaging wheelchairs. They were ranked 16 out of 17 airlines in July’s report from the Department of Transportation mishandled wheelchairs and scooters.
American Airlines has since backtracked on what it told John and now says that it is a safety issue. This is despite the airline having accepted heavier wheelchairs for years. Other airlines are also still carrying heavier wheelchairs on the same aircraft types. In a statement to NPR the airline said, “We do everything we can to safely accommodate mobility devices across our operation. Each aircraft type has specific cargo floor weight and door dimension restrictions that are established by the aircraft manufacturer.”
To prove the point that this was not safety-related, John chose to fly with United from Salt Lake City on a CRJ-700 aircraft and had no issues with his wheelchair being accepted. United’s policy is that they will accept any wheelchairs that will safely fit through the cargo doors.
John also worked he could potentially fly with his wheelchair on American if he reduced its weight by removing the battery and various parts. On his next trip, American employees dismantled the wheelchair using the manual John provided. All seemed well as John was able to fly. However, once the chair had been reassembled, John started noticing strange fluctuations in the battery readings. This eventually left him stranded in a hotel room for 14 hours when the battery stopped working altogether. It was later discovered the batteries had not been appropriately reattached. While this allowed him to fly, the extra time needed to disassemble and reassemble his wheelchair and the risk of unqualified people working on complex equipment does not make this an acceptable solution.
After John was featured on NPR, American has agreed to review the policy, telling NPR, “We apologize for the confusion and will ensure all customers can travel wherever American flies.” American Airlines have also said that it will take time to change the rules due to the FAA needing to be involved with the change in flight manuals. Currently, the situation remains that many electric wheelchair users will be unable to fly with American Airlines on their regional jets.