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United acts to ease wheelchair travel


United Airlines is taking steps to make it easier for travelers taking personal wheelchairs, including motorized ones with them, and is piloting other plans to make travel easier for passengers with disabilities.

The biggest system-wide shift is a tool being added to United's website that will allow passengers to enter the dimensions or model of their wheelchair in advance. That will enable the airline to be sure the wheelchair fits the cargo doors on the plane for a given flight. If not, United will work with the passenger to book a flight that can take the wheelchair, and will refund the difference if the fare is higher.

Damage and delay to wheelchairs has been an ongoing and growing issue for airlines, and there are numbers of lawsuits active over damage or long delays after arrival. United alone flew about 150,000 wheelchairs last year, with nearly 1500 mishandled, misdirected or damaged. It's a small percentage, but a major problem for the 1500 passengers.

United's other initiative, which is being tried at Houston George Bush Airport, addresses some of those issues. Few details have been announced, but the plan includes a focus on the time between when a customer's flight arrives and when they're either reunited with a lost wheelchair or provided an "appropriate" loaner to use while their wheelchair is located or fixed.

United says it will explore other accessibility initiatives, including providing specialized seating in the airport for passengers waiting for their devices to be returned, and a plan to reimburse travelers for ground expenses if they choose not to stay in the airport after wheelchair damage occurs.

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