United Just Announced New Policies for Passengers in Wheelchairs

The industry-first changes will roll out early next year.

Traveling with a wheelchair is about to become easier while flying United Airlines. On Thursday, the airline announced the upcoming launch of new technology and policies for passengers who use a wheelchair.

Launching early next year, United's website will include a new filter that helps passengers determine which plane can accommodate different-sized wheelchairs. The airline will also roll out a new policy that refunds the difference if a higher-fare flight is needed to accommodate a specific wheelchair size.

"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, the airline's executive vice president and chief customer officer, said in a statement.

The new flight filter will let customers enter the dimensions of their personal wheelchair while searching for a flight, and the results will prioritize options on aircrafts with cargo hold doors that are large enough to accommodate the dimensions that were entered. The size of cargo hold doors can vary from plane to plane, with some aircrafts better suited for larger motorized wheelchairs, which must travel upright.

If the traveler isn't able to take their preferred flight because their wheelchair will not fit through an aircraft's cargo doors, they will be able to take a United flight on the same day and between the same destinations with a higher fare to accommodate them, and be able to request a refund for the fare difference.

united airlines new wheelchair user flight filter on website
Courtesy United Airlines

Both United's digital filter and new reimbursement policy are being described as industry firsts, a welcome and inclusive change for travelers who have had difficult experiences when traveling with a disability. Wheelchair-related issues are frustratingly common, in particular. According to the US Department of Transportation's February 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report, 11,389 wheelchairs were mishandled by US airlines in 2022 alone and this year was on track to have an even higher number of these incidents.

Recently Beyoncé fan Jon Hetherington, who has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair, made the news after his trip to see the superstar was halted after another airline said his chair exceeded flight requirements. After posting about his frustration in a video on TikTok, fellow Bey fans came to his aid, making the video go viral. The story has a happy ending, when a few days later a person from Beyoncé's team reached out and the singer made sure Hetherington was able to head to Texas to see her show. But it shouldn't take a pop superstar to help out people who need basic accommodations to simply travel.

Later this year, United will also begin a six-month pilot program at George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport to look into ways to better accommodate customers in the event their wheelchair is damaged or delayed while traveling. Let's hope these first-of-its-kind policies become industry standard soon.

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Lisa White is a contributor for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram.