Under a new agreement with the United States Department of Transportation, United Airlines will make changes designed to improve air travel for passengers who use wheelchairs.
The airline will roll out a search function allowing travelers to find flights on planes that can accommodate their wheelchairs in the cargo hold. If passengers have to book a more expensive flight because their preferred option cannot accommodate the size of their wheelchair, then United will refund the difference in fare price, the company announced this week. These changes are expected to take effect early next year.
United agreed to these measures after the transportation department conducted a “lengthy” investigation into the airline’s handling of a passenger’s wheelchair, per a statement from the department.
That passenger was Engracia Figueroa, a disability rights activist who used a $30,000 custom wheelchair designed to support her pain from her spinal cord injury and left leg amputation. In July 2021, Figueroa flew on a United flight from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, according to a statement from Hand in Hand, a disability rights group. Her wheelchair had been transported in the plane’s cargo hold. When she retrieved the chair after landing in Los Angeles, it was “bent backward and completely broken,” according to Hand in Hand’s statement.
She spent more than four hours in the airport filing a report. During that time, she had to sit in a temporary wheelchair, which made sitting upright difficult. This, in turn, caused a pressure sore to develop, per a Hand in Hand statement from November 2021.
Because her personal wheelchair had been “demolished,” Figueroa had to use a loaner chair after returning from the trip. The loaner caused the pressure sore to worsen and led to several other issues, including muscle spasms, edema and an inability to eat. She was hospitalized twice.
Eventually, an infection in the sore reached Figueroa’s hip bone. Surgeons tried to remove the infected tissue and bone, but Figueroa died on October 31, 2021.
Under the terms of the agreement, the transportation department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection will close its investigation into the airline’s handling of Figueroa’s chair. However, the office will continue to “review United’s performance” under the new agreement.
The transportation department says that United’s changes go “above and beyond” federal requirements to improve air travel for passengers who use wheelchairs.
“Everyone ought to be able to travel safely and with dignity,” says Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. transportation secretary, in the department’s statement.
Travelers who use wheelchairs face many challenges when flying. One of the biggest is airline and airport staffers mishandling—and often severely damaging—their wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Between 2019 and 2022, U.S. airlines mishandled 1.45 percent, or 32,640, of wheelchairs and scooters on domestic flights, per the agreement. United and its partner carriers mishandled wheelchairs and mobility devices at a slightly lower rate of 1.2 percent.
But for passengers who rely on mobility aids to get around, any mishandling is a big problem. Losing access to their wheelchair is “like being separated from a part of your body,” as Rebekah Taussig, an author and disability advocate, told the Los Angeles Times’ Emily Alpert Reyes last year.
Once United implements the changes outlined in the agreement, passengers will be able to input the exact dimensions of their wheelchairs into a filter while searching for flights on United’s website. The website will show flight options on planes with large enough cargo hold doors to accommodate the traveler’s chair.
“The size of aircraft cargo hold doors varies, so some aircraft are better able than others to handle larger motorized wheelchairs, which must travel upright,” according to United.
If travelers have to book a pricier flight to accommodate their chair, they’ll need to go through United’s refund process to get the difference in fare price back. The airline says it will “promptly ensure” those passengers receive a refund.
United is also launching a six-month pilot program at the Houston airport to improve the airport experience while passengers wait for United staffers to retrieve their chairs. They will consider options such as providing specialized seating at the airport or reimbursing passengers for transportation expenses if they decide to wait elsewhere.
The airline also agreed to seek feedback from passengers who check their wheelchairs on flights and take this input into account when “developing and enhancing its practices and procedures for handling wheelchairs,” per the transportation department.
Other changes that aim to improve air travel for wheelchair users are also in the works. In June, Delta unveiled a prototype that could someday allow wheelchair users to remain in their own chairs on flights. In August, the transportation department announced that new single-aisle planes with at least 125 seats must be equipped with wheelchair-accessible lavatories—though that rule won’t take effect for over a decade.