United will improve accessibility features for wheelchair users

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United Airlines on Thursday announced two new programs to improve the travel experience for passengers who rely on wheelchairs for mobility.

The airline will introduce a digital filter on its website that allows travelers to enter the dimensions of their wheelchair, and prioritize itineraries with flights that are operated by aircraft that can safely carry the chair. The size of wheelchair that can fit on an aircraft is limited by the size of that plane’s cargo door, meaning that some larger, more expensive chairs can’t fit properly on some smaller planes.

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If a customer has to book a more expensive itinerary in order to be on an aircraft that can accommodate their wheelchair, United will refund the fare difference, the airline said.

Separately, the airline plans to run a six-month pilot program at its Houston hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) to trial new ways to help passengers if their wheelchair is damaged or lost in transit.

The airline did not share many details of the program in its announcement, but said that it would focus on the time between when a customer’s flight arrives and when they’re either reunited with a lost wheelchair or provided an “appropriate” loaner to use while their wheelchair is located or fixed.

The airline also said it would collaborate with its Accessible Travel Advisory Board to explore additional ways to improve the airport experience for passengers with limited mobility and special equipment.

Both initiatives were developed in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, United said, as part of a push to improve accessibility.

There are limits for some customers, of course, including those traveling to or from smaller airports that are only serviced by regional aircraft, meaning there’s no larger plane that they can try to fly on. And passengers whose wheelchairs are lost or damaged at other airports will not benefit from the pilot until — or unless — it’s expanded.

Even so, the announcement marks a relatively major step by an airline to improve how it approaches accessibility, an ongoing challenge for both airlines and affected passengers.

The difficulties faced by wheelchair users while traveling have come under increasing scrutiny since late 2021, following the death of a disability advocate.

Engracia Figueroa, 51, died several months after a United Airlines flight on which airline workers accidentally damaged her $30,000 custom wheelchair. While sitting in a loaner wheelchair at the airport — a broken manual wheelchair — she developed a pressure sore, which her family argues led to complications that ultimately resulted in her hospitalization and death.

The incident — which is the subject of ongoing litigation — underscores the difficulties surrounding travel for people with disabilities and highlights the new efforts by United and the DOT.

United flew roughly 150,000 wheelchairs in 2022, the airline said, according to its internal tracking. Of those, 1,463 were mishandled, misdirected or damaged, according to DOT data — less than 1 percent, but a major challenge for each affected passenger.

In recent years, accessibility in the air has become a bigger conversation, whether the topic is the safe handling of passengers’ wheelchairs, lavatory sizes or the real-world practicality of evacuation safety standards.

In July, United began adding Braille signage to its aircraft cabins, making it easier for passengers who are blind or have significant vision impairment to identify their seats and various areas inside and outside of lavatories.

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