The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires that airlines must provide free wheelchair service to patrons who request it, even without any documentation stating that it is necessary. Since the act’s creation, the number of able-bodied flyers who have conned airlines into providing wheelchairs to save time in long security lines is growing nationwide, and little can be done to change it.
It happens regularly, airport officials state. A traveler requests a wheelchair, gets pushed to the front of the security line and gets screened, but then jumps up out and rushes off into the terminal on foot.
“We call them ‘miracles.’ They just start running with their heavy carry-ons,” said wheelchair attendant Kenny Sanchez, who has been pushing airport patrons in wheelchairs for 14 years.
This greatly hinders the safe and timely travel of travelers who sincerely need the service, especially when disability advocates say long waits and potential missed flights are a growing issue. Los Angeles International Airport issued a reminder four days before Christmas last year that wheelchair services “should be reserved for persons with disabilities and senior citizens with mobility issues.” But simple reminders do not hinder the most selfish of flyers.
Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are misused, which accounts for 15% of all requests.
“It’s just a big mess,” Lawrence Rolon said, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. “Abusers are really impacting the operation.”
Wheelchair-service providers say some passengers running late for their flight will request immediate wheelchair service to avoid an hour-long wait at Immigration when entering the country. Some patrons do this to help with heavy bags. Some departing passengers want early boarding privileges and perhaps a seat with extra legroom in the front of the plane, which are reserved for passengers with disabilities.
The overuse of this service strains the airline staff and increases airport costs, which may lead to higher ticket prices. This service can cost more than $40 per wheelchair run because an attendant often spends more than an hour on each passenger. “It’s an expense we simply must budget for because the service is vital to customers with disabilities,” said a Delta Air Lines spokesman.
At larger airport hubs, airlines provide motorized carts to help able-bodied passengers with long distances. However, the service usually costs $125 to $275 for one passenger, plus $75 for each additional adult and $50 for each additional child.
How can she tell a legitimate request from a bogus one? A lack of mobility equipment, such as a cane or crutches, can be a clue.
“People walk in with high heels on and say they need wheelchair service,” Angela Strickland says, a wheelchair dispatcher at Southwest Airlines. Travelers with real infirmities almost always wear safer shoes, even if it means carrying nicer shoes in bags, she observed.
Airlines do not want to tread on the delicate issue of deciding who is scamming the service and who actually needs it, even if it means a necessary inconvenience for flyers with true mobility issues.
“We do our best to accommodate our customers’ needs,” a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines said.
Sam Overton, president of the Los Angeles City Commission on Disability, says he waits up to 30 minutes for a pusher at the airport. One simple solution he advised: First serve those people who made advance wheelchair requests, which are widely seen as legitimate, he said.
What do you think will happen when able-bodied air travelers learn they can reserve a wheelchair ahead of time? And do you think airport security personnel should apprehend the abusers and levy a fine, costing THEM time and money?