For the estimated 5.5 million Americans who use a wheelchair, it’s about to get a bit easier to travel by plane—at least with one U.S. carrier. United Airlines recently announced plans to release a new search filter on its website meant to make flying more equitable for travelers with mobility vehicles.
The filter, which is expected to launch in early 2024, will allow customers to input the exact dimensions of their wheelchair into their flight search. Then the site will pull up all the flights between their departure city and destination that can accommodate and safely transport their wheelchair. (Cargo hold door sizes vary, and not all can handle larger motorized wheelchairs.)
“By offering customers an easy way to know if their personal wheelchair fits on a particular airplane, we can give them the peace of mind they deserve when they fly with us,” United executive vice president and chief customer officer Linda Jojo said in a statement. “Plus, collecting this information ahead of time ensures our team can handle these special items with proper care and attention.”
If the plane for travelers’ preferred route isn’t a match for their wheelchair, United said travelers can book an itinerary that does work for their mobility device, and the airline will refund the difference in fare price if it’s more expensive. The two flights must be for the same route on the same day to qualify for reimbursement, and travelers will need to complete a form after flying to receive the funds.
In a statement, United also announced the company and its Accessible Travel Advisory Board would begin a six-month pilot program at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston to determine better ways to accommodate customers if their mobility device is damaged or delayed while traveling.
United is launching these programs following a lengthy investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), due to a disability complaint filed against the airline after it had mishandled a passenger’s wheelchair, according to a statement from the DOT.
That passenger was Engracia Figueroa, a disability rights activist and president of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free, whose $30,000 custom wheelchair designed to support a spinal cord injury and leg amputation was damaged during a United Airlines flight in 2021, according to a statement from disability rights organization Hand in Hand. Figueroa passed away three months later, which, Hand in Hand claimed, stemmed from sitting in a broken manual wheelchair while waiting for a loaner motorized wheelchair at Los Angeles International Airport following the destruction of her personal wheelchair. According to Hand in Hand, because Figueroa was unable to balance herself without her custom wheelchair, she developed a pressure sore, which eventually became infected. Though doctors tried to remove the infected tissue and bone, Figueroa did not survive.
Airlines damage thousands of wheelchairs and mobility scooters each year. In August 2023 alone, U.S. airlines mishandled more than 1,100 wheelchairs and scooters, according to the most recent Air Travel Consumer Report, published by the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection. For context, that’s 1.52 percent of all wheelchairs and scooters that flew that month.
“Everyone ought to be able to travel safely and with dignity, and I’m glad that United is taking steps to improve their service for passengers who use wheelchairs,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement about the changes being instituted by United for wheelchair users. Buttigieg added, “For our part, we at the U.S. Department of Transportation will continue working to make air travel safer and more accessible for people with disabilities, and for the millions of Americans who step on a plane every day.”
Some of the changes in the works, according to the Department of Transportation, include adding more wheelchair ramps and accessible toilets in airport terminals, creating a requirement that airlines make lavatories on all new single-aisle planes accessible, and developing rules that would require more training for airline staff to help passengers with disabilities and allow passengers to stay in their own wheelchairs when flying.
This isn’t the only instance of airlines making strides to accommodate passengers with disabilities this year. In June, Delta shared a prototype for a first-of-its-kind airplane seat, which would allow wheelchair users to stay seated in their own wheelchair during their flight. United also became the first airline to introduce Braille to some of its aircraft to help visually impaired passengers move around the cabin more easily. The airline plans to update the entire fleet with the signage by 2027.