Should Airport Wheelchair Misuse Be Better Regulated?

by Anthony Losanno

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I’m traveling in Peru this week and saw two instances during my journey  (both at US airports) that made me question whether the passengers being pushed actually needed the wheelchairs. One flight had a woman clearly abusing the system. This was totally obvious when she jumped out of the wheelchair and sprinted down the hall after the flight was delayed. The second flight had 23 people in wheelchairs. The sheer number made me scratch my head.

People with disabilities that genuinely need assistance with a wheelchair should always be helped. End of discussion. But, it seems that more and more people are looking at wheelchair usage as a loophole for early boarding where they can buy the cheapest ticket and not have to worry about their bags because they’ll be boarded first.

Traveling from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), I saw a woman (mentioned above) being pushed in a wheelchair to the gate. She arrived and was waiting to board when it was announced that the flight was delayed. She literally jumped out of the chair and ran (as in sprinted) down the hall because she said she forgot something. If she actually needed wheelchair assistance, would she be able to break an Olympic record for the 400-meter dash? She ran back and hopped back into the chair when it came time for boarding.

ATL Wheelchairs

On my connecting flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) to Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport (LIM) there were 23 wheelchairs waiting to preboard (the ones pictured here plus many off to the side). I counted them as they went down the jet bridge. A good number of these people were elderly, but statistically it seems improbable that so many passengers would need wheelchair assistance on a single flight. When we arrived it seemed like many of them no longer required help or the wheelchairs.

View from the Wing reported on this phenomenon back in February when 55 people said they needed extra time and 25 of them were in wheelchairs.

Gary Leff speculated:

And since this is a Southwest Airlines flights, wheelchair assistance means getting on board in front of those with an “A” boarding group – ahead of people who paid the highest fares and have the highest status. That means having first choice of seats on the aircraft.”

Is This a New Scam?

Requesting a wheelchair makes it so that you board the plane first. You’ll then be guaranteed a space for your bag (even if you bought a Basic Economy ticket), get your choice of seats on Southwest, and will have someone to help you cut the security line and assist you all the way down the jet bridge.

It takes a real scumbag to divert resources away from those that actually need them in order to selfishly skirt airline policies. The woman in Chicago was clearly gaming the system and I have to believe that at least some of the Lima-bound passengers were also looking for an easy way to preboard. When too many people request wheelchairs, those that actually need them are made to wait or not get what they need altogether.

What Can Airlines Do?

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has written the guidelines that airlines need to follow for passengers with disabilities. These rules state:

Airlines are required to provide assistance to passengers with a disability as they navigate through different portions of the airport, this includes:

  • Assisting you from the terminal entrance (or vehicle drop-off point) to the gate location where your flight is departing, including the security checkpoint, and onto the aircraft to your seat; and
  • Assisting you from your aircraft seat on an arriving flight through the airport to the gate location of your connecting flight (if you have a connection); and
  • Assisting you from the gate location of your connecting flight to your seat on the aircraft; and
  • Assisting you from your aircraft seat on an arriving flight through the airport to the baggage claim area, terminal entrance, or vehicle pick-up location.”

Wheelchair Passengers

They also make it possible for airlines to verify that a passenger actually needs a wheelchair. This doesn’t ever seem to happen, though.

Anthony’s Take: If you need a wheelchair then you should get every bit of the assistance you need. If you don’t, then stop gaming the system as you’re only hurting those that actually need this service.

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Mak August 31, 2023 - 6:40 am

These problems exist precisely because wheelchairs are already heavily regulated by the American’s with Disabilities Act and it has led to unintended consequences like this. There is little to nothing that airlines can do under the ADA to make sure that those who request this free service – which is mandated by law under the ADA at great expense to airlines and zero expense to passengers using (and abusing) them – actually need the wheelchairs. So the proper question instead should be, should wheelchairs be deregulated so that airlines can develop procedures to prevent misuse, which the law presently doesn’t allow them to do.

RH August 31, 2023 - 7:43 pm

I think you see excessive wheelchair requests on flights to foreign destinations because many of the older folks don’t speak English or are infrequent flyers and families request wheelchair assistance mainly to ensure they can make their connecting flight.

DaninMCI August 31, 2023 - 7:37 am

Noel Phillips has a recent video showing how hard it can be for disabled passengers to get wheelchair assistance and much of this is due to diverted resources for those gaming the system. These are the same immoral people that obtain handicap parking tags so they can park 20 feet closer to the door.

derek August 31, 2023 - 8:14 am

The solution is easy. Charge for wheelchair use.

Tom September 7, 2023 - 1:53 pm

Yes, charge for the use of wheelchairs. That way we can add the problems of the old and handicapped and benefit people like you, who only care about themselves. Wonderful idea . So thoughtful of you!

Anthony August 31, 2023 - 9:11 am

This is dangerous territory. There are many, many people with disabilities that are not visible or do not present in ways you expect. I have a friend that cannot walk for long periods of time. But she can run for about 5 minutes. If she forgot her phone at security she would be this person running back. Ask her to stand for 20 minutes and she’ll get back pain that lasts the whole day.

I absolutely agree this is a problem but the solutions presented her will just continue to punish people with accessibility needs who already get told “that they are fine” because they don’t look the way we expect someone with a disability to look.

Jean September 7, 2023 - 11:38 am

My problem is the same as your lady friend, Anthony. I cannot walk long distances, so when making a connection, or a long walk to either the gate or away from it, I sometimes ask for a wheelchair. Unfortunately, if I sit in the back of a plane, chances are that by the time I get off the plane, there are no more wheelchairs, even though I have requested one. I’m nearly 84, so my looks alone should be an indication!

Tom September 7, 2023 - 1:58 pm

Wife had the same problem. She can’t walk very far, so we request a wheelchair to get to the gate. However, she can and does walk onto the plane to her seat. We do not board with the disabled. We wait until regular boarding is called.

K Helldoge August 31, 2023 - 9:37 am

Jetway jesus. There is a miracle in every can of Diet Coke

drshang August 31, 2023 - 10:31 am

Just board wheelchair pax last, problem solved.

drcynic August 31, 2023 - 10:54 am

…and limit the number of family members “assisting” to, oh say 1, versus the gaggle that inevitably accompanies them

Dee More September 12, 2023 - 5:39 pm

Absolutely right. They get off last why can’t they board last?

Misha August 31, 2023 - 4:09 pm

I think that this is very shortsighted. There are many people particularly elderly that have issues walking the great distances that are required in airports. They are fine once they get to the gate but would not be able to get between them . They are not trying to preboard, they just want to be able to make their flights.

Sunya August 31, 2023 - 7:28 pm

DrCynic, airlines do currently limit accompanying family members to one.

Enis August 31, 2023 - 8:24 pm

As a visually impaired traveler, I often get shoved into a wheelchair when I only want help finding my gate. It seems to be the one-size-fits-all answer. Deaf? Wheelchair. Blind? Wheelchair. Mobility? Wheelchair. Autism? Wheelchair.

AAL August 31, 2023 - 10:14 pm

I travel frequently with my elderly mother. She can’t stand long enough to get through the TSA line, or walk quickly enough to board a plane at a distant gate. But on arrival, we know it will be awhile until the bags are unloaded, so she can walk at a leisurely pace and even sit down rest on the way to baggage claim. I don’t doubt that there are scammers, but there is a legitimate reason that fewer wheelchairs are needed when the plane arrives.

SarahF August 31, 2023 - 11:56 pm

I travel all the time in Asia. There is typically one or zero wheelchairs per flight. Airports are just as large. Populations just as elderly (generally less fat). There is no reason for the discrepancy other than scam.

Anna Paxton September 2, 2023 - 5:38 am

And another angle….just returned via Atlanta Airport, where apparently the Delta Unifi personnel are trained that wheel chairs take priority EVERYWHERE in the airport. The ADA does not say that a disabled person necessarily receives better treatment…the goal of the law is to give a disabled person an accommodation to allow them the same access as non disabled people. I watched these Delta employees scream at senior citizens and children who had waited their turn to board the train between gates to move out of the way for a wheel chair. The unprofessional behavior was unreal but so is the concept. While I understand the airline seating wheel chair customers first….you don’t get to push others aside who have waited their turn to board the train. The ADA says you wait like everyone else for your turn. This practice simply encourages more wheel chair abuse! Shame on these Delta employees for screaming and yelling at other customers like this! Customers notice Delta!

Walt Nichols September 7, 2023 - 11:19 am

I have seen 20+ wheelchairs board a flight from San Antonio and only two require a wheelchair deplaning in Las Vegas. This is on Southwest – it is a scam for people jockeying for a seat closer to the front.

Joseph Howard September 7, 2023 - 11:27 am

As I recall, the winter time flights to Palm Springs (i.e., AA flight ORD to PSP) are called miracle flights because of the large number of people who need wheelchairs to board the flight in Chicago but who need NO assistance to deplane when they arrive in PSP. Obviously, this is a scam to be able to pre-board to avoid waiting and to get early access to overhead luggage storage.

Dee More September 12, 2023 - 5:43 pm

There is a solution for the miracle flights as well. Simply require they get off last. I don’t care if they get a chair or not but they get off last. Yes it is hard to identify them so make all the wheelchairs sit in the last rows. That alone will reduce the number coming on. Alternatively, if you request a wheelchair to get on, but don’t use one getting off then you get charged a $50 convenience fee. That doesn’t discriminate because you asked for the service and get it then it is free.

Eugenio September 7, 2023 - 11:40 am

I am all in favor of government regulations such as the ADA. I was once connecting from Amsterdam to New Delhi with Delta medallion status. I reached the boarding area to find my line. The areas are blocked in two zones, with the front zone full of wheelchairs. When I finally made it to the gate, I asked the flight attendant what was going on, and she told me that about one-fifth of the plane (747) were passengers with disabilities. I also have seen people sprint from their chairs to their seats once they reach the plane door. Only one person from the clan should be allowed to enter with the person in the chair. Other members should enter the place at their regular time.

Lan Sluder September 7, 2023 - 11:46 am

Due to a back injury, I can walk short distances with a cane but not long distances such as you find in large, spread-out airports such as Heathrow and LaGuardia. On recent flights through those airports, I requested a wheelchair for the long-distance portions of getting to or from gates. The system seemed to work very well. I saw no obvious violations. Although the services technically are free in most areas, I offer the wheelchair attendant a tip of US$5 to $10, or the equivalent in local currency, depending on how much times he or she spent with me, just as one would tip for luggage or other services. There are many people who simply cannot walk the long distances required in today’s huge airports, and which often don’t have moving sidewalks that work or alternate transport.

ed September 7, 2023 - 12:29 pm

In order to get a wheelchair, get a note from the doctor.’ This may help. Airlines need to limit only one person to accompany the wheelchair person.
No doctor note, too bad OR charge the
extra, like $50,00.

Annabananna September 7, 2023 - 1:09 pm

In July, I traveled between PHX and PDX r/t with my tall, healthy looking 14 year old grandson. (AA was great with the wheelchair service.) He looked like a normal teen boy, but had recently had a serious chest operation. He carried a heart pillow to hold over his chest to keep it still and was not allowed to walk long distances or get “jostled” by crowds. He was very uncomfortable, thinking people were assuming he was cheating. He got a lot of looks by those who didn’t see him go through security, showing a card that informed TSA of the metal bars in his chest.
I agree, there are a lot of scammers around, especially annoying are the people claiming to need emotional pets to beat no pet rules. I know a doctor who gave a note for his son’s girlfriend’s cat, so she could get the apartment she wanted. There has to be a solution, but I don’t know it.

Suzy Cremecheez September 7, 2023 - 1:25 pm

Possible solution:
If there are no metrics kept at the gate of the actual # who required wheelchair assists for boarding, then start keeping track. Ask each wheelchair passenger if they will also need assist at the destination. That way an appropriate # of chairs or carts can be dispatched to the arrival gate. Flight attendants announce everyone should remain seated so that wheelchair passengers who are able to walk independently to the exit door will can disembark.
Then, load them into the wheelchairs and push them to luggage claim per assistance rules.
Bwah Hah Hah!
Those who refuse the wheelchairs would then perform the walk of shame (a la Game of Thrones) accompanied by an airline employee to help in case they fall. This should last from the gate to bag claim or airport exit doors.
If they have bags, other passengers from the flight will see them as gamers as they all wait for bags too.
Since it is impractical to do this on every flight – ID the flights that have a high volume of gamers.
Do it randomly.
Call it Operation You’re Busted!!

Pat Schnetzer September 7, 2023 - 3:50 pm

I have a bad back and cannot walk the longer (and it seems longer and longer) distance to the gate. Once I am brought by wheel chair to the gate, I can walk to the rest room, board the flight by myself etc. It’s the long walks that I cannot do. How wonderful that wheel chairs are there to assist me.

Joe September 7, 2023 - 4:09 pm

I have seen plenty of this abuse flying internationally. Honestly, these people are reprehensible. IMO unless someone lives in a wheelchair, like a motorized one, for example, there shouldn’t be any special priority. The abuse is to get priority boarding. So a simple solution is this: board those with a motorized wheelchair first (those are the ones who need the time an attention), then first class, then coach, then the “handicap” folks. When they see the preferential boarding disappears, so will the wheelchair abuse.

Indian peeing scorpian September 8, 2023 - 12:32 am

Indians,Indians & Indians are mostly the culprits!

Grant September 8, 2023 - 11:11 am

The wheelchair people should have to submit appropriate paperwork just like those flying with a service animal.

Dee More September 12, 2023 - 5:38 pm

Extremely simple fix. Board wheelchairs last. You will be amazed at the small number of people who request chairs and those who really need it will get even more help than they did before because resources won’t be wasted on those who are abusing the system. Duh.

Lili September 21, 2023 - 12:00 am

I have a letter from my DR that I carry with me at all times traveling, and do pre-board. I don’t use a wheel chair yet, but will eventually in the future.
I have seen 3 big YOUNG women being pushed in wheel chairs to gate, while waiting at gate they see a bar across, they jump up and go get margaritas to drink. So I have seen the abuse, which I shake my head at.
I believe these airlines don’t want bad press about denying someone a wheel chair or assistance.

jane October 5, 2023 - 8:01 am

just got off of 3 planes, and saw about 45 min extra added to boarding time due to W/Cs, half of them youthful people. Rewarded with front row, and luggage space, and it does not seem to be an issue when deplaning. This is something that the airlines can make a financial killing on at the time people buy ticket. Also, put them on the back of the plane, to limit the amount of problems deplaning, and giving them bathroom access. Problem solved.


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