United will add wheelchair feature to booking engine

Under an agreement with the Transportation Department, United Airlines will introduce a first-of-its-kind flight filter for its booking engine.

United said the filter will make it easier for passengers with mobility disabilities to find flights on which their wheelchairs can be securely transported in the cargo hold.

Also, United will reimburse customers for any increase in fare if an alternate flight is needed to accommodate their wheelchair — a U.S. airline industry first. 

United expects the new booking tool to go live early next year. 

The agreement was announced separately on Thursday by both United and the DOT. It came in resolution to a complaint filed against United by Engracia Figueroa, whose motorized wheelchair was broken in a July 2021 United flight to Los Angeles. Figueroa reported having to wait several hours at Los Angeles Airport that day in an ill-fitting manual wheelchair that opened an old wound.

Figueroa’s condition worsened steadily prior to her death three months later, including skin grafts and emergency surgery. Her family and her lawyer have blamed United for the cascade of events, according to a 2022 Los Angeles Times story. 

U.S. airlines in general have a troubling record when it comes to wheelchair handling. The 10 largest U.S. carriers reported damaging or misplacing 1.45% of wheelchairs and scooters on domestic flights between 2019 and 2022, according to the DOT. On United and United Express flights, the mishandling rate over that period was 1.2%. 

A primary reason for damage, explained Wheelchairtravel.org founder John Morris in an April interview, is that depending upon the aircraft, some chairs don’t fit through the cargo door in an upright position. Another is that chairs often aren’t secured in cargo holds.

A provision in the House version of the 2023 five-year FAA reauthorization bill would seek to ease those issues by directing airlines to publish stowage size dimensions for wheelchairs on their websites. The House bill passed in July, but the Senate has yet to pass a companion bill. 

Along with creating the new booking tool, United has committed in its agreement with the DOT to conducting a pilot program to explore better ways to accommodate travelers whose wheelchairs are damaged or delayed. 

United will undertake the six-month pilot beginning this fall at Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport. The program, the carrier said, will focus on the period between a customer’s arrival and when United returns the wheelchair or provides an appropriate loaner wheelchair if the original is damaged. 

United said it will work with its own Accessible Travel Advisory Board, comprised of individuals with disabilities, to explore such initiatives as providing specialized seating onsite and reimbursing customers for transportation expenses should they choose to wait at a location other than the airport.

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