Wheelchair Impostors

February 27th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

What can be done about people who cheat the airport wheelchair system?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

I’ve seen them, and if you’re frequently in an airport, you probably have, too – apparently able-bodied people being wheeled through the airport for their own convenience. Wall Street Journal “Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney recently spotlighted these wheelchair impostors.

They’re called “miracles,” according to one wheelchair attendant McCartney interviewed. A traveler requests a wheelchair, gets pushed to the front of the security line and then, “’They just start running with their heavy carry-ons.’”

The problem, says McCartney, is that this vital service – which makes travel feasible for the elderly and people with disabilities – is available to anyone who asks for it, according to the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act. No documentation required. Even if a wheelchair is waiting by the terminal door for a passenger with a reservation, he writes, “Sometimes arriving passengers see wheelchairs waiting on the jet bridge and think, ‘What a good idea!’” The truly disabled person, then, is left waiting for another wheelchair because, “by law, it’s all first-come, first served.”

Los Angeles International Airport reported that airlines and companies that provide wheelchair services estimate that 15 percent of all requests are bogus – as many as 300 requests per day. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has reported an increase in wheelchair cheating, and Orlando International Airport has worked with staff and skycaps to dissuade use unless they’re reserved in advance, McCartney says. The costs to an airline can reach more than $40 per wheelchair run because an attendant may spend more than an hour on each passenger, and the cheating can add 20 minutes to the wait for a wheelchair for some disabled passengers.

Blame it on long TSA screening lines, increasingly crowded conditions at the airport, or maddening immigration lines, but the bottom line is that feigning disability to cut in front of other passengers is just plain dishonest. On the other hand, requiring every mobility-impaired person to deliver proof of his or her disability doesn’t seem fair or responsible either (not to mention humiliating). What do you think the solution might be? Weigh in.