United and Delta Are Trying to Make Air Travel for People With Disabilities a Little Easier

We all know that air travel for people with disabilities can be massively frustrating. From lost or damaged wheelchairs to inaccessible airplane bathrooms to unhelpful airline staff, it’s often nightmare. 

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation says that in 2022 alone, U.S. airlines mishandled more than 11,000 wheelchairs and scooters.

However, there’s some evidence that airlines are starting to get it. The latest development comes from United Airlines, which says it’s trying to help travelers who use wheelchairs have a more pleasant experience.

To do that, the company will soon implement a new filter on its website that will help passengers with disabilities figure out which aircraft can accommodate different sized wheelchairs. 

Many trips use commuter flights for at least one leg – for example, flights “Operated by United Express.” These are run by subsidiaries that have smaller planes, which can force the crew to take a wheelchair apart to make it fit.

To avoid this potential disaster, you will be able to enter your wheelchair’s dimensions when you search for a flight. The search results will prioritize flights on aircraft with cargo hold doors that are large enough to fit your specific wheelchair. 

If you can’t take a preferred flight because your wheelchair won’t fit, you might be stuck with a more expensive flight that can accommodate it. If that happens, United says it will “promptly” refund the fare difference after you fill out a form when the trip is over.

“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, United’s executive vice president and chief customer officer, says in a statement. “Plus, collecting this information ahead of time ensures our team can handle these special items with proper care and attention.”

United expects to launch this new tool early next year. Its efforts are receiving some praise from the disability community.

“I think that this new booking tool will undoubtedly make the travel experience easier for wheelchair users,” Cory Lee, who runs the travel site Curb Free With Cory Lee, tells Yahoo Life. “It will be much more convenient to know if my wheelchair will fit in the cargo hold when I’m beginning the trip planning process. I really hope that other airlines will do the same thing in the near future.”

Pilot Program for Damaged Wheelchairs

Few travel nightmares are worse than having your wheelchair damaged or delayed by careless and/or poorly trained airline staff. 

United is tacitly acknowledging this problem through a planned six-month pilot program at George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport. The program will focus on the time between when a customer arrives and when United returns their wheelchair or provides an “appropriate loaner” if the customer’s wheelchair is damaged. 

“United will collaborate with its Accessible Travel Advisory Board to explore several initiatives aimed at improving the airport experience during this challenging period, including providing specialized seating onsite and reimbursing the customer for transportation expenses should they choose to wait at a location other than the airport,” the company says.

Delta Airlines Stepping Up

Other major airlines are starting to make changes as well – or are making a lot of promises, at least. For example, Delta airlines says it:

  • Has developed a dedicated “customer mobility team” that is trained to assist customers with assistive devices. The team’s training focuses on “proper and careful handling of assistive devices, ensuring safe and timely handling at hubs across the Delta operation,” according to the company. 
  • Has started using new technology to make sure its employees are “at the right place at the right time to support customers for their specific needs, including the movement, loading/offloading, and transferring of a customer’s wheelchair, scooter, or other mobility device.”
  • Debuted a full prototype of an airplane seating area that allows a customer who uses a powered wheelchair to stay in it for an entire flight. Essentially, the prototype converts a standard passenger seat into a space that can accommodate a restrained wheelchair.
  • Formed an “Advisory Board on Disability” composed of frequent Delta flyers who have disabilities or are experts on certain disabilities. The advisory board recommends ways that the airline can better serve customers with disabilities. 

So, there’s finally some encouraging news when it comes to airline travel. How much of this will come to fruition or actually make a difference remains to be seen, but in principle, these developments are welcome. 

If you’d like to share your personal experiences with airline travel – good or bad – please do so in the comments.

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