One week ago, I checked-in for what was supposed to have been my first flight since March — a 900-mile American Airlines flight from Gainesville, Florida (GNV) to Dallas, Texas (DFW). The route is a familiar one to me and I flew it most recently in February. It is operated by a CRJ-700 aircraft, a type that I have flown well over 50 times with a power wheelchair across a variety of airlines, including 21 times with American.
Check-in was appearing to go as normal, with my boarding pass printed and my luggage tagged and placed on the conveyor belt. The American Airlines supervisor asked for the weight of my Permobil F3 power wheelchair and I responded, just as I always have, with 450 pounds.
After providing this information, the supervisor retreated to his office to “check on something” — the first sign that this was not going to be a typical flight experience. After about 5 minutes, he returned to tell me that American Airlines had instituted a new policy and that my wheelchair was now too heavy to fly on any of its regional aircraft. The airline refused to transport me to Dallas or on to my final destination of Roswell, New Mexico.
Arbitrary weight limits established to restrict carriage of power wheelchairs
When I asked to see the new policy, the supervisor presented a list of the following “maximum acceptable weights for mobility aids” by aircraft type:
- Embraer RJ-175 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer RJ-170 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer ERJ-145 — 400 lbs.
- Embraer ERJ-140 — 400 lbs.
- Canadair RJ 900 — 300 lbs.
- Canadair RJ 700 — 300 lbs.
American Airlines connects the Gainesville Regional Airport with three of its hubs: Charlotte, Dallas and Miami. The Charlotte and Dallas flights are operated with Canadair aircraft, while the Miami flight uses Embraer regional jets. According to the airline’s new policy, which I am told was enacted on June 12, 2020, no wheelchairs weighing more than 400 pounds will be able to fly from the Gainesville Airport and no wheelchairs over 300 pounds will be accepted on the Gainesville to Charlotte and Dallas flights.
Power wheelchair users are (effectively) banned from AA flights across most of America
This policy effectively bans most complex rehab power wheelchairs produced by companies like Permobil, Quantum and Quickie from regional jets on American Airlines. To illustrate just how big of a deal this is, I have compiled a list of the airports where American Airlines uses only regional jets and plotted them on this map. There may be a few errors due to outdated information and pandemic-related flight schedule changes, but the data is largely accurate.
According to my research, there are now 130 airports in the contiguous United States that many power wheelchair users will no longer be able to fly to on American Airlines. A complete list is provided below, organized by state. Airports marked with an asterisk serve a given state’s capital city.
- BHM — Birmingham–Shuttlesworth International Airport
- HSV — Huntsville International Airport
- MOB — Mobile Regional Airport
- MGM* — Montgomery Regional Airport
- FLG — Flagstaff Pulliam Airport
- YUM — Yuma International Airport
- FSM — Fort Smith Regional Airport
- LIT* — Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport
- TXK — Texarkana Regional Airport
- BFL — Meadows Field Airport
- LGB — Long Beach Airport
- MRY — Monterey Regional Airport
- SBP — San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport
- STS — Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport
- ASE — Aspen/Pitkin County Airport
- DRO — Durango–La Plata County Airport
- GJT — Grand Junction Regional Airport
- GUC — Gunnison–Crested Butte Regional Airport
- HVN — Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport
- DAB — Daytona Beach International Airport
- VPS — Destin–Fort Walton Beach Airport
- GNV — Gainesville Regional Airport
- EYW — Key West International Airport
- MLB — Orlando Melbourne International Airport
- PNS — Pensacola International Airport
- TLH* — Tallahassee International Airport
- AGS — Augusta Regional Airport
- SAV — Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport
- BMI — Central Illinois Regional Airport at Bloomington-Normal
- CMI — Willard Airport at the University of Illinois
- MLI — Quad City International Airport
- PIA — General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport
- SPI* — Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport
- EVV — Evansville Regional Airport
- FWA — Fort Wayne International Airport
- SBN — South Bend International Airport
- CID — Eastern Iowa Airport
- DBQ — Dubuque Regional Airport
- SUX — Sioux Gateway Airport
- ALO — Waterloo Regional Airport
- GCK — Garden City Regional Airport
- MHK — Manhattan Regional Airport
- LEX — Blue Grass Airport
- AEX — Alexandria International Airport
- LFT — Lafayette Regional Airport
- LCH — Lake Charles Regional Airport
- MLU — Monroe Regional Airport
- SHV — Shreveport Regional Airport
- BGR — Bangor International Airport
- SBY — Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport
- MVY — Martha’s Vineyard Airport
- ACK — Nantucket Memorial Airport
- FNT — Bishop International Airport
- GRR — Gerald R. Ford International Airport
- AZO — Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport
- LAN* — Capital Region International Airport
- MQT — Sawyer International Airport
- TVC — Cherry Capital Airport
- RST — Rochester International Airport
- JAN* — Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport
- GPT — Gulfport–Biloxi International Airport
- PIB — Hattiesburg–Laurel Regional Airport
- MEI — Meridian Regional Airport
- COU — Columbia Regional Airport
- JLN — Joplin Regional Airport
- SGF — Springfield–Branson National Airport
- BIL — Billings Logan International Airport
- GRI — Central Nebraska Regional Airport
- MHT — Manchester–Boston Regional Airport
- ROW — Roswell International Air Center
- ITH — Ithaca Tompkins International Airport
- ISP — Long Island MacArthur Airport
- SWF — New York Stewart International Airport
- ART — Watertown International Airport
- HPN — Westchester County Airport
- AVL — Asheville Regional Airport
- PGV — Pitt–Greenville Airport
- OAJ — Albert J. Ellis Airport
- EWN — Coastal Carolina Regional Airport
- LAW — Lawton–Fort Sill Regional Airport
- SWO — Stillwater Regional Airport
- EUG — Eugene Airport
- MFR — Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport
- ABE — Lehigh Valley International Airport
- ERI — Erie International Airport Tom Ridge Field
- AVP — Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport
- SCE — University Park Airport
- IPT — Williamsport Regional Airport
- CHS — Charleston International Airport
- CAE* — Columbia Metropolitan Airport
- FLO — Florence Regional Airport
- GSP — Greenville–Spartanburg International Airport
- HHH — Hilton Head Island Airport
- MYR — Myrtle Beach International Airport
- RAP — Rapid City Regional Airport
- FSD — Sioux Falls Regional Airport
- TRI — Tri-Cities Airport
- CHA — Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport
- ABI — Abilene Regional Airport
- AMA — Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport
- BPT — Jack Brooks Regional Airport
- BRO — Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport
- CLL — Easterwood Airport – College Station
- CRP — Corpus Christi International Airport
- DRT — Del Rio International Airport
- HRL — Valley International Airport
- HOU — William P. Hobby Airport
- GRK — Killeen–Fort Hood Regional Airport
- LRD — Laredo International Airport
- GGG — East Texas Regional Airport
- LBB — Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport
- MFE — McAllen International Airport
- MAF — Midland-Odessa International Air and Space Port
- SJT — San Angelo Regional Airport
- TYR — Tyler Pounds Regional Airport
- ACT — Waco Regional Airport
- SPS — Wichita Falls Regional Airport
- SGU — St. George Regional Airport
- BTV — Burlington International Airport
- CHO — Charlottesville–Albemarle Airport
- LYH — Lynchburg Regional Airport
- PHF — Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport
- ROA — Roanoke–Blacksburg Regional Airport
- CRW* — Yeager Airport
- HTS — Huntington Tri-State Airport
- ATW — Appleton International Airport
- GRB — Green Bay–Austin Straubel International Airport
- LSE — La Crosse Regional Airport
- MSN* — Dane County Regional Airport
- CYS* — Cheyenne Regional Airport
American has created an air transportation desert
That is a lot of airports! If you still don’t believe that this is a big deal with significant consequences, it is important to understand that there are now more airports that are likely off-limits (130) than there are airports with mainline AA service (102). This means that large swaths of the United States could now be inaccessible to power wheelchair users on American Airlines, creating an air transportation “desert.”
To illustrate what a transportation desert looks like, I have plotted the 102 airports where AA permits the carriage of power wheelchairs on a map. Around each airport, I drew a circle with a radius of 50 miles. Areas not appearing within a circle on this map are more than 50 miles away from an airport with mainline American Airlines service.
The map appears to be empty across large swaths of the country—particularly in parts of the midwest, southeast and Texas—but imagine if an additional 130 airports were added.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that there are entire states without an airport identified on the map. That is because, in 7 states, American Airlines uses only regional aircraft. That means heavy wheelchairs like mine are not currently welcome on AA flights to or from the following states:
- New Hampshire
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Now, you might say, “fly another airline!” That’s probably the right idea, but it isn’t always possible. My intended destination — Roswell, New Mexico — is served only by American Airlines, so there was no way to get there on another carrier even if I wanted to.
I am an Executive Platinum member of the American Airlines loyalty program, a status level that requires at least 100,000 miles of flying per year. Flying isn’t new to me and I have taken my power wheelchair on regional jets countless times.
When I asked an Executive Liaison why the airline made this change (and with no notice!), I was told that it was because AA was damaging too many wheelchairs during loading. I was told that, by refusing to transport my wheelchair on regional jets, my mobility device would be safe from damage and I would be protected. That’s absurd!
I still have to fly, so I had an idea…
Despite my disagreement with the airline’s policy, it has become clear to me that AA will not relent unless they are forced to do so by the government. Given that I still have to fly, I decided that my only option is to reduce the weight of my wheelchair by disassembling it.
Last week, I took the wheelchair to my repair shop to have the articulating leg rest removed. Although the leg rest is medically necessary (for reasons that I will not go into here), I decided that I could go without it during this one trip. Since I have no feet, I was able to have the foot plates removed as well.
At the airport, I will have the airline remove wheelchair’s batteries, each weighing approximately 51 pounds. The technicians at the repair shop strongly advised against permitting airline baggage handlers to rip apart my wheelchair, but any damage that results from this unnecessary procedure will be the airline’s responsibility. If after removing the batteries the wheelchair is still overweight, the disassembly will continue to remove the seat back, armrests and anything else that is not integral to the chair’s core structure. It will probably be a disaster, but I will keep a good attitude and have my popcorn ready.
My flight is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 28.
By refusing to transport me and my power wheelchair, I contend that AA committed a gross violation of the Air Carrier Access Act. It is my hope that the Department of Transportation will come to the defense of disabled travelers’ civil rights and levy enforcement action. It must be done.
If my plan works, American Airlines will run to the media to say, “look, see, he can fly!” But the cost of even having a shot at flying under this new policy is to leave medically necessary pieces of my wheelchair behind. American Airlines is forcing me to risk my health, safety and well-being in order to fly. Some of the components that I am removing, such as the foot plates, can only be removed because I have no feet. And so, even if by some miracle I am able to fly, that possibility likely will not exist for the majority of power wheelchair users who do have feet.
Just to be clear: This is what discrimination looks like. Remember this story the next time American Airlines claims that it is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. It is a lie.