United Airlines announced improvements to the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities. The updates, set to roll out early next year, include a new tool on the airline’s website to help wheelchair users identify the flights and aircrafts that can best accommodate their mobility devices. As part of the updates, travelers will also be eligible for a partial fare reimbursement if more expensive flights are better equipped to accommodate the device.
“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,” Linda Jojo, executive vice president and chief customer officer at United said in a statement. “Plus, collecting this information ahead of time ensures our team can handle these special items with proper care and attention.”
The tool is meant for checked wheelchairs, not those that can travel in the cabin. It’s also not a solution to allow wheelchair users to travel in their mobility devices, though concepts along those lines are under development elsewhere.
The announcement was made in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, which said the improvements follow an investigation into United based on a complaint filed by Engracia Figueroa, a wheelchair user who died from complications related to an injury she sustained after her wheelchair was damaged on a flight.
“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,” Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement. “For 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.”
Here’s what travelers need to know about these updates.
What is United’s new wheelchair booking tool?
Travelers booking on united.com will have the ability to enter the dimensions of their wheelchairs under a flight search filter, which will allow the website to prioritize flight options that are best equipped to handle their mobility device.
“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,” a statement from the airline said.
Disabled travelers have previously told USA TODAY that cargo hold door dimensions are a well-known impediment to the safe transportation of large, motorized wheelchairs.
Although United did not announce any updates to training for baggage handlers who load wheelchairs on the ramp, the airline said it continues to explore ways to improve that aspect of its operation, too.
How to get a refund for eligible accessible flights
Once the sizing tool is live, United said it will refund the fare difference for disabled travelers who are better accommodated on more expensive itineraries.
“If a customer is unable to take a preferred flight because their wheelchair will not fit through the aircraft’s cargo door – and takes a United flight with a higher fare that can accommodate their wheelchair on the same day and between the same origin and destination – the customer may seek a refund of the fare difference,” a statement from the airline said. “Customers seeking a refund of the fare difference will need to follow United’s process, including completing a short form after they’ve traveled. United will promptly ensure they receive the difference in fare after review.”
Tell us your story: Mobility device lost or damaged by an airline? USA TODAY wants to hear about it.
United’s disabled traveler experience improvement pilot program
The airline is also working to improve the experience for travelers whose mobility devices are damaged.
In the coming months, United will begin a pilot program at George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport aimed at making it easier for travelers to be accommodated if something goes wrong.
According to United, the program will focus on reducing the amount of time it takes for customers to be reunited with their wheelchairs after they arrive, or for an appropriate loaner to be provided if that’s necessary in the situation.
In collaboration with its accessible travel advisory board, United said it plans to explore other accessibility initiatives as part of the pilot, including providing specialized seating in the airport for disabled passengers who are waiting to be reunited with their mobility devices, and a plan to reimburse travelers for ground transportation expenses if they choose not to stay in the airport after wheelchair damage occurs.
Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: United Airlines' disabled customers will soon have more access options