United Airlines to implement improved experience for wheelchair passengers

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United Airlines and the US Department of Transportation (DOT) entered an agreement that will see the Chicago-based airline making improved changes to enhance travel experience for wheelchair passengers.

The agreement, the DOT said, was in relation to a 2021 incident when United Airlines damaged the wheelchair of Engracia Figueroa, a longtime activist for people with disabilities.

In July 2021, Figueroa attended the Care Canโ€™t Wait rally in Washington, DC. On her return flight, United Airlines loaded her custom-designed $30,000 wheelchair into the cargo hold. Figueroa, who had a leg amputation and a spinal injury, was then forced to sit in a broken manual wheelchair for hours. 

According to the United Spinal Association, Figueroa developed pressure ulcers that became infected and spread to her bones. Despite emergency surgeries, she passed away in the morning on October 31, 2021.

The DOT said that disability complaints and incidents such as Figueroaโ€™s, highlight the significant challenges that people who use wheelchairs face during air travel to, from, and within the US.

โ€œEveryone ought to be able to travel safely and with dignity, and Iโ€™m glad that United is taking steps to improve their service for passengers who use wheelchairs,โ€ US Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement

โ€œFor our part, we at USDOT 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,โ€ Buttigieg added. 

Under the agreement with United Airlines, the airline will take what the DOT calls โ€œ industry-leading actionsโ€ that go above and beyond Federal requirements. 

This includes the following changes:

  •  United Airlines rolling out a flight filter on its booking engine to make it easier for passengers who use wheelchairs to find flights where their wheelchairs can fit and be safely transported
  •  United Airlines refunding the fare difference for passengers using the flight filter when the passengerโ€™s preferred flight cannot accommodate their wheelchair and the flight that they travel on with their wheelchair is more expensive
  •  United Airlines conducting a pilot program to explore whether additional equipment, such as a medical wheelchair or other form of moveable or non-moveable chair, can be utilized to safely accommodate passengers waiting for loaner wheelchairs
  • The airline must seek feedback from each passenger who checks a wheelchair for transport in the aircraft cargo compartment.

In addition to this, United said that in late 2023, it will implement a six-month pilot program at Houston-George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Texas to explore ways to better accommodate customers in the unlikely event their wheelchair was damaged or delayed while traveling.

The DOT said that it will review Unitedโ€™s performance under this agreement and will act if any portion of the agreement has been violated.ย 

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