Last month, I published details of a discriminatory American Airlines policy, quietly instituted in June, that prevented many power wheelchair users from flying on the world’s largest airline. New limits on the weight of wheelchairs carried in the cargo hold effectively banned those wheelchairs from more than 130 airports in the United States.
In order to fly under this policy, I was forced to remove essential components of my wheelchair, including the batteries. The result of that forced disassembly was a damaged wheelchair, 14 hours stuck in my Salt Lake City hotel room and an emergency wheelchair repair. American Airlines chose to enforce its policy, even as competitors like United Airlines carried power wheelchairs without restriction.
From the moment that I became aware of the policy, I knew that it would not stand. But, expressing my displeasure with the airline alone was not going to get the job done. I needed to build a coalition. And so, I sent a tweet to my followers, describing what had happened.
That tweet, and the articles that I published detailing the impact such a policy would have on wheelchair users, attracted widespread attention from the media. Here are just a handful of the stories that were written:
- American Airlines Denies Access to Power Wheelchair User, New Mobility Magazine
- A New Rule Means Some People With Wheelchairs Can’t Fly On American Airlines, NPR
- Triple amputee denied access to flight due to new wheelchair weight limit rule, KOB4 Albuquerque
- The Airline Policy Stopping Some Wheelchair Users Flying And The Man Fighting Against It, Forbes
- ‘This Is What Discrimination Looks Like’: American Airlines Introduces Weight Limit For Wheelchairs, The Independent
- New American Airlines Policy Strands Passengers Relying on Mobility Devices, Gizmodo
- American Airlines reviewing wheelchair policy after blogger calls out weight restrictions as too prohibitive, Fox News
- Blogger’s Journey Could Improve Air Travel With American Airlines, Travel Pulse
- Up, up and away – except for those with disabilities, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board
In addition these news clippings, countless disability organizations reached out to the airline to raise their opposition, as did readers like you. Many others wrote to their elected officials, who in turn reached out to me and other disability advocates. It was a classic full-court press, with the community — and to a certain extent the nation — uniting around the common goal of eliminating the unnecessary weight limitation.
Our collective advocacy paid off.
Earlier today, American Airlines reached out to me and many of the journalists who had covered this story to inform us that the policy had been changed.
Different weight limits now apply to different wheelchair makes & models
Updated cargo weight limits have been published on the American Airlines website, which I have copied below.
- Embraer RJ-175 — 100 lbs / sq ft; 488.243 kgs / sqm
- Embraer ERJ-145 — 80 lbs / sq ft; 390.594 kgs / sqm
- Embraer ERJ-140 — 80 lbs / sq ft; 390.594 kgs / sqm
- Canadair RJ 900 — 75 lbs / sq ft; 366.182 kgs / sqm
- Canadair RJ 700 — 75 lbs / sq ft; 366.182 kgs / sqm
These weight limits are a distributed weight per square foot or square meter. The limit will be different for each type of wheelchair, due to the different shapes and sizes of their wheelbases.
Calculating the weight limit for your wheelchair
In order to calculate the maximum weight for my wheelchair, the Permobil F3, I first measured the chair’s dimensions. The Permobil F3 wheelbase measures 24 inches width by 36 inches length, or 2 feet by 3 feet, for a total of 6 square feet. By multiplying the maximum weight per square foot by 6 square feet, these are the maximum weight limits for the Permobil F3 by aircraft type:
- Embraer RJ-175 — 600 lbs for a wheel base measuring 6 sq ft
- Embraer ERJ-145 — 480 lbs for a wheel base measuring 6 sq ft
- Embraer ERJ-140 — 480 lbs for a wheel base measuring 6 sq ft
- Canadair RJ 900 — 450 lbs for a wheel base measuring 6 sq ft
- Canadair RJ 700 — 450 lbs for a wheel base measuring 6 sq ft
Wheelchair users should measure their mobility devices or consult the manufacturer’s documentation to determine the size of the wheelbase. With those measurements, passengers will be able to calculate a maximum weight by aircraft type for their own wheelchairs.
Wheelchair weight limits on larger aircraft
It is worth noting that a hard weight limit of 500 pounds or 226 kilograms has been established on all mainline aircraft at American Airlines, regardless of the wheelchair’s dimensions. Mainline aircraft include the following types:
- Airbus A319
- Airbus A320
- Airbus A321
- Airbus A330-200
- Boeing 737 MAX
- Boeing 737-800
- Boeing 777-200
- Boeing 777-300ER
- Boeing 787-8
- Boeing 787-9
Interestingly enough, a wheelchair measuring 2 feet by 3 feet could weigh up to 600 pounds and be accepted on the Embraer RJ-175 (2 x 3 x 100 lbs.), but it would be too heavy to fly on any of the airline’s larger mainline aircraft under the published restrictions.
Although I remain concerned about the establishment of weight limits in general, these limits appear to permit the carriage of most power wheelchairs. If, after calculating the weight limits that apply to your specific chair, you find that it would still be too heavy to fly, I would like to hear from you. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Move in the right direction, but damage was done
Despite the fact that the change in policy will now allow me and many others to fly with our power wheelchairs, the arbitrary policy that was previously in effect prevented me (and others) from traveling with American Airlines. The forced removal of my wheelchair’s batteries and the resulting damage left me stranded in a hotel room, costing me valuable time (and my independence).
Additionally, rather than assisting me in resuming my trip after I made a plan to fly under the previous policy, American Airlines forced me to purchase a new ticket at a substantial cost premium. That single one-way ticket from Florida to Las Vegas cost more than the three one-way tickets I had originally purchased combined (Florida to New Mexico, New Mexico to South Dakota, and South Dakota to Las Vegas). Naturally, I took the airline’s “apology” for my inconvenience with a grain of salt.
The hard truth is that American Airlines is no more accessible or welcoming to disabled customers today than it was prior to the institution of the discriminatory policy in June and, in fact, it is likely less accessible now that limits do exist where they did not before. Situations like this could be avoided if airlines would consult with accessible travel experts (email@example.com) to evaluate the impact of new products, policies, programs and restrictions.
There is still so much work that must be done to make air travel accessible to all and, I promise you, we are just getting started.