United Airlines debuts tool for wheelchair users to filter flights


United Airlines has laudably distinguished itself amongst its peers for adopting an ‘every flight has a story’ initiative that arms passengers with detailed descriptions about delayed and cancelled flights — even going so far as to describe mechanical issues.

But the US major is now taking transparency to a whole new level with a digital tool that enables wheelchair users to filter flight search results — on both United’s website and its powerful app — to identify flights scheduled on aircraft types with cargo hold doors that are large enough to accommodate the specific dimensions of their personal mobility device.

United has also announced that eligible customers may seek a refund of the fare difference if a customer needs to pay more for a flight that can accommodate their wheelchair.

Users of complex power wheelchairs, which can weigh up to 450 lbs, have faced challenges when seeking to fly on certain smaller planes, such as commuter aircraft and even regional jets.

As such, United’s new digital sizing tool and fare difference refund policy for wheelchair users is both accommodating and rather groundbreaking. Customers seem to agree, with many praising United’s new initiative online. “This strikes me as a great example of how we can use technology to help remove barriers and make the world more accessible,” notes one HR executive.

In a comment shared on LinkedIn about the program, United executive vice president and Chief Customer Officer Linda Jojo thanked the United Spinal Association, wheelchair and mobility equipment company Numotion and United’s own Accessible Travel Advisory Board for providing “invaluable feedback to the team at United Airlines to develop these changes that set up both our customers and our employees for success”.

The carrier implemented a beta test of the program early this month, and is already implementing it. “The more we know about a customer’s device, the more likely their experience will be a good one — from booking and check-in to the flight itself,” Jojo said in a published statement. “These new tools and policies also set our employees up for success, especially those working on the ramp or at the gate.”

A screenshot image of a mobile device using the wheelchair filter feature on United Airlines' app.

The size of aircraft cargo hold doors varies, so some aircraft are better able than others to handle larger motorized wheelchairs. Image: United Airlines

Across commercial aviation, there are many horror stories about wheelchairs ending up damaged when placed in cargo holds, which effectively robs disabled passengers of the use of their ‘legs’. That’s among the reasons why key industry stakeholders, including the US DOT, are currently working towards the goal of enabling wheelchair users to remain in their own mobility devices in the cabin.

“More than one in every 100 wheelchairs and scooters transported in the aircraft cargo compartment of domestic flights are damaged, delayed, or lost,” according to the DOT. “Enabling passengers to stay in their personal wheelchairs on aircraft” it said, “will increase the safety and dignity of air travel and increase access for travelers with disabilities.”

United’s new digital sizing tool doesn’t address the wheelchairs-in-the-cabin challenge, but it does close in on addressing another problem that was brought into stark relief in 2020 by accessibility advocate and wheelchair user John Morris who was denied travel aboard a Bombardier CRJ700, after being informed that weight restrictions prevented American Airlines’ regional affiliate, SkyWest, from carrying Morris’ wheelchair.


Referring to its new digital sizing tool and fare difference refund policy, Jojo said: “While some would say this is a small step, it will not be our only step. We’re committed to making the travel experience more accessible for everyone, and I’m personally excited to announce even more product and policy updates for you in the future.”

Indeed, United is also testing a new program at George Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport to better accommodate customers if their wheelchair was damaged or delayed while traveling.

“The pilot program focuses on the timeframe between a customer’s arrival and when United returns the wheelchair or provides an appropriate loaner wheelchair if the original is damaged,” explained the carrier.

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Featured image credited to Jason Rabinowitz