Trend? People Request Wheelchair Assistance for Airport Priority When They’re Just Fine

Thanks to a reader, with apologies I’m no longer certain who, CBS ran a story on people using wheelchairs to get priority access at airports — even when they don’t need assistance.

If you need assistance contact your airline in advance and they’ll arrange for a wheelchair. There’s officially no cost for the service although in most U.S. airports the people pushing are paid based on an assumption that they’ll be receiving tips, although in many cases they aren’t allowed to solicit tips. I actually don’t know the right amount to tip, and I’m interested in feedback here. I guess $5 is appropriate.

There are three potential benefits I see to this strategy, all involve boarding the aircraft early.

  • Better seating on Southwest. This matters most with Southwest, you’re going to get a better deal tipping a wheelchair attendant than buying Early Bird Check-in in order to get a better seat.

  • Access to overhead bin space. If you’ve got a late boarding group there may not be overhead bin space. But board with a wheelchair and you go on early, bin space is yours.

  • Free carry on with a basic economy fare. This one’s more speculative, but if you need priority boarding assistance you aren’t in the last boarding group, and the full-sized carry on ban (disappearing next month on American, still in place with United, on the cheapest tickets) is enforced by boarding group. Does anyone have experience with this, it’s not something I’ve paid attention to, but presumably a customer on a basic economy fare who shows up needing assistance would get a carry on despite their fare.

Some would see a benefit to skipping a check-in queue or security, but waiting in those lines is outside my experience – if you’re savvy enough to ask for a wheelchair you are savvy enough to get PreCheck and check-in online and do bag drop.

Last summer I fractured a bone in my foot while traveling. Then I walked across the Dallas Fort-Worth airport on it. That wasn’t smart. A few days later I had to be up in the air again, and I requested a wheelchair meet me in Atlanta. I was flying Delta and connecting from the end of the T concourse to the opposite end of B, and I don’t think I could have walked it.

I didn’t need a wheelchair onto the plane in Austin, so I was using the opposite of this strategy. Delta didn’t have a way of requesting the service in Atlanta but not on my arrival in DC. They told me “just walk past the person waiting for you if you don’t need them.” I couldn’t quite do that, I tipped them anyway and told them I was fine to walk. Being assigned to me meant losing out on helping someone else that likely would have tipped.

There’s certainly no checking whether or not you need assistance when assigning you a wheelchair. And showing up in a wheelchair on its own validates your request or need for extra time boarding.

Do you see any other benefits to wheelchair use for airport priority besides getting on the plane early for overhead bin space and on Southwest for a better seat?

And how do you feel about people who do this? It feels instinctively wrong, although I’m not sure I am aware of a rash of people being denied wheelchair assistance because of too much ‘illegitimate’ demand.

  • If enough people did it that would either cause waits for assistance or a need for more contract workers and wheelchairs, which would drive up airline costs that would ultimately affect levels of service or price.
  • If everyone at the gate showed up needing early boarding it would defeat the purpose of early boarding (‘if everyone gets early boarding then no one does’).

Have you ever done this? Would you admit it if you had?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I am 66 years old and I need a wheelchair. I have a bone disease that is not visible unless you look at my spine on an x ray. As I have gotten worse one of the reasons I began using a wheelchair was that people rushing to get seated would knock me over. One trip recently, I got knocked over in the aisle by someone dragging a large roller bag and it broke my hip. I too watch people bring their entire family onboard because of language problems. SW I think ,it is because they want their preferred seat or overhead bin space. (I always pay for my forward seat on SW ) I overtip the wheelchair attendants, they are usually very nice and remember me. Too many people are “gaming the system” . I think unless the airlines do something, it won’t change. The jerks make it bad for all of us.

  2. It’s one thing for a family member to need a wheelchair but do the 9 others traveling with them need to get on with the wheelchair user??? The other thing i see if they may need a WC to get on but they will jump over you to get off!!!

  3. My partner had Polio as a young child (5-months old) and for the first year or two after we met flat out refused to request “special/disabled services” assistance to deal with long lines at airports, and especially to clear security, or of course, the deal with last minute gate changes – until an incident at JFK when it took more than one hour (acutally close to 90 mins) of slowly snaking through the line resulted in him being bedridden for the entire trip in searing pain, followed by several weeks of a particularly intense and nasty flare up of pain in the leg that was most impacted by this insidious disease.

    He now travels with a 2018 doctor’s certification/verification of his permanently reduced mobility arising from Polio, along with his government issued disabled person’s parking permit in the event there is any doubt of his reduced mobility by either other passengers (or airline employees even though Federal regulations specifically stipulate he is not obligated to furnish proof of his disability to receive assistance at the airport when he travels).

    And yet still, and even despite it being manifestly clear in person that he has reduced/impaired mobility, very often he experiences lengthy delays waiting for wheelchairs and/or wheelchair attendants to get to the gate after arriving at the airport; abandonment at gates either at time of boarding, but really much worse, when there’s a last minute gate change and the new gate is at the opposite end of the terminal; or most frequent of all, attendants and wheelchairs that simply are never provided on the arrivals end of a flight, as happened late last year for a connection at BWI on Southwest where the arriving flight was at a distant gate on the C concourse, and the connecting flight far away on the B concourse, where he, at at least four other reduced mobility passengers were left in the lurch so long, the entire crew was ready to turn off the lights on the plane for the night, close the door, and go to their hotel (or homes) it was THAT long when even then, nary a wheelchair, let alone a single accompanying attendant had shown up to assist him, and the others, on our flight.

    Finally, the captain intervened, rounded up the needed wheelchairs, and wheeled my partner up the jetbridge and into the terminal, where I took over for the rest of the fairly long distance between concourses at BWI that night.

    And we were hardly the only pair of passengers pushing other passengers seated in wheelchairs at BWI that night.

    To say that it was shameful, and hardly Southwest’s finest hour, is an understatement.

    It’s also hardly the only incident where he experienced something like this, either traveling alone, where one time the wait for a wheelchair and attendant at JFK Terminal 4 for a business trip on Delta to LAX was so long, he called in a panic after it was clear he would miss his flight having not yet cleared security and then dealing with the half mile long (or more) distance to the high 30s and higher B gates there.

    In the end, it all worked out after I called Delta’s disability services department, and they intervened on his behalf to ensure he didn’t get left behind.

    But the point is this: be it greedy and neglectful airlines who resent not being able to levy an additional fee to assist disabled passengers (something they’re now actually seeking to overturn and actually do in their effort to exploit the nation’s current Useful Idiot in Chief and his mostly incompetent cabinet secretaries he appointed in his misinformed and misguided attempts to destroy our country) or selfish, shameless, insensitive passengers hoping to “game the system”, both of whom are equally vile, despicable and should be viewed with all due contempt for their arrogance, callousness and immorality, it simply is unfair to push aside the needs of those who either out of age, reduced mobility, or an actual medically documentable need that’s not readily apparent to the naked eye, be it by airlines who are seeking to further profit by expanding the “options” offered as ancillary fees, or those whom feel a special entitlement to fake a disability to escape standing in lines or paying an additional fee to use a priority lane or earlier boarding group.

    Well deserved shame on both people, and airlines, that fail to recognize that what’s inconvenient for most to deal with when they travel, is so much more so for those who face challenges most never have to deal with.

    Trust me, I know the difference, too, as my partner always teases me when I fly alone that I need to remember that it’ll be back to standing in many long lines, and boarding in group three or four for me on those trips if no upgrades are to be had on those trips!

  4. I am 72, a former college varsity athlete abd told I do not look my age. However, I had both knees replaced 3 years ago, have spinal stenosis, a heart stent, and medical cards
    Proving my inability to walk more than 50 yards without great difficulty. At 6’4”, I then have to contort myself to attempt to squeeze into seat spaces made for people who are 4’6”. Nobody has ever asked me yet, but I can show them by 7 inch knee scars if they need proof beyond my wallet scars. It is embarrassing to need wheel chair assistance to get to and from gates, and I tip the attendants well. I would much prefer to walk and pull my carry on bag, which includes my C-pap machine, and to take my turn getting into my seat than to know I am getting some stares. But, the reality is my new knees still cause me pain, as does my back. Believe me, I would trade any boarding or seating considerations I MAY receive on occasion for the pain I deal with much of the time just living my ordinary life. I do not doubt there are a very few people who may try to game the system, but they have to go through alot of hassle to do it, and it does cost them some money to do it if they reasonably tip the attendants..

  5. I’ve traveled a LOT by air during my career and have never seen this “miracle” phenomenon reported here. Perhaps I’m an exception.

    Starting a couple of years ago, I’ve not been able to walk from check-in to the gate and from the aircraft through luggage claim to the curb, so I request wheelchair assistance. But I can walk short distances, i.e. from the gate onto the aircraft, so I release (and tip) the wheelchair attendant after I’m at the gate. I use a cane when I’m walking, and I’ve not been subjected to snide remarks or hostile stares.

    Kudos to Swissair in Malpensa Airport last May for sending back the wheelchair attendant I’d previously dismissed to take me to a new gate reassigned just before boarding.

  6. Can’t say too much about wheel chairs but I see fat people preboarding all the time…especially on Southwest…because…they…are…fat

    Not a disability…it’s a choice but the airlines allow it so here we are.

  7. @OldKingCole

    Spot on! Everyone wants to go to the front of the line. People, especially “entitled” people, know how to work the system better than you and me. Take disability parking placards. As soon as lazy folks saw how easy it was to complain to their doctor and have him complete and sign the form, bang, they got a permanent disability placard! Same goes for permanent social security disability; they have psychologists and lawyers that will get you your disability check. Hey, who couldn’t use another $800/month. Makes my Tesla payment! I’ve always hoped the Airlines would address this as fast as they did the Emotional Support Peacock and chicken issue. Have truly disabled people go through a vetting process and have the fact embedded in their official travel document, driver’s license or other legal ID, and NO extended family, real or otherwise.

  8. @Jason —> You wrote, “@Jason Brandt Lewis — you are completely off base, SeaTac for example has $15 min wage and the tipping culture is no different there.”

    I don’t think I’m off-base at all. If you re-read what. said, I *quite clearly* said, “The Federal minimum wage in the US is $7.25/hour, although it *is* higher in some states.” The fact is, Washington State is one of those states. Washington has an $11/hour min. wage, and that includes non-Federal employees at Sea-Tac. The fact that some or all — I’m not claiming to know all the ins and outs of Sea-Tac hourly wages — employees receive a higher-than-minimum hourly wage is due to either local ordinances or the job market: companies must pay more than the min. to attract employees.

    “As for $15k/year, that’s a common PhD student stipend, esp. in the humanities.” True. Doesn’t mean that’s a living wage, does it? How many grad students — for example — have their own place, their own car, their own…whatever. Sharing flats — maybe on-campus subsidized housing (at some schools) — bicycling to/from work, and on and on… They may be PhD candidates, but they’re still students. ;^)

  9. @Rick —> I’m not sure what you’re referring to, when you write, “I think wheelchair service is a courtesy the airlines supply, supposedly for the truly disabled. It’s out of control much like the earlier example of Emotional Support Animals.”

    Did I not conclude my previous post by writing:
    — “THIS IS NOT TO SAY there aren’t abuses of this service. Of course there are. There are people who will indeed take advantage of or cutting corners for services wherever they can, even though they aren’t entitled to them. Sadly, I suppose, that’s human nature for you — gettin’ sumpthin’ for nuttin’. I only hope they won’t ruin it for the people who actually need it.”

    I believe it isn’t the airlines but rather the individual airports that hire these people. Be that as it may, there are people who NEED this service. And some of those people — like my mother-in-law — need this service EVEN THOUGH they can walk on their own for short distances unassisted. (My mother-in-law also has a state issued handicap placard for her car, for the same reason.)

    Are there abuses? I think I already said that. I would certainly support, IN GENERAL, limiting the number of people *per party* who can board: one person to assist the individual in the wheelchair requiring assistance¹; one parent to get one munchkin in his/her seat, while the other parent waits with the older kids…UNLESS there are multiple kids in which case both parents (and all the other kids) need to board at the same time. It’s very difficult to draw iron-clad rules, but there certainly does need to be curbs on the process.

  10. There but for the grace of god go all of us who are healthy enough to walk the miles of concourses to get to anywhere in an airport. (my husband used his high tech watch to count steps and scored a mile and a half for just a short walk) The availability of wheelchairs has given many people the ability to travel, to see the new grandchild, to make one last trip before total immobility sets. I do think that it is not unreasonable for people who cannot walk to have documents attesting to their inabilities so that there are wheelchairs available for them and are not being used by scum fakers.

    What I am concerned about is a document I found on American Airlines website last year or before that of instructions for the disabled policy and in have told people they can ask other passengers to help them. Thus, AA has authorized the disabled passenger. That puts the abled passengers in a difficult situation. If they help and end up causing more problems, they could be subject to suit from the disabled person and if the healthy passenger refuses for whatever reason to help, again I could see a lawsuit. Passengers do not know of this responsibility.

    This whole safety thing is laughable. Does the airline reasonably think that the disabled are going to be able to get to an exit? In which case they could be preventing others from successfully exiting the plane.

    I remember when Christopher Reeves traveled by plane after his accident. He was so disabled that he could not even breathe on his own. Now really, is he going to be able to exit the plane with all of the equipment he needs just to stay alive in case of an emergency? The airlines need to be up front about this. Perhaps seating all disabled people in one section with a cabin steward assigned to that section might address some of these issues. The upshot is that all passengers’ ability to exit the entire plane is compromised.

  11. Whoops! Forgot the footnote…

    ¹Certain airlines create their own additional layer of complexity, specifically Southwest and the ULCCs. It’s fine for (e.g.) me to go down the jetway and help my mother-in-law. But what if we’re flying on Southwest and there are four of us flying together? Obviously we would like to sit together, and if we were flying on another carrier, we could have booked seats together…but not on Southwest or the ULCC’s. I’m sure there are ways around this, but again, it’s on a case by case basis.

  12. @Jason Brandt Lewis
    That’s exactly what I thought I said and what I was referring to, that some truly need a wheelchair and that it’s out of control just like the whole Emotional Support Animal program. Did you watch the video above?

    I dread boarding and deboarding aircraft. On a recent trip to Asia, I sat in my seat until it appeared that I was the last one on the aircraft and when there was quiet. At that point, I deboarded the aircraft along with a couple FAs. As I exited the plane onto the jetway, I counted nine wheelchair assistants still waiting for people in an aircraft which was empty. I mentioned this to one of the FAs, who laughed and said; “it’s standard”.

    Early boarding is not a right for anyone in my opinion. If I want to board early, I pay for it. The entire thread here is about “Wheelchair Assistance for Airport Priority When They’re Just Fine”. There are ways to manage this service and I suspect the airlines are afraid of being sued by ADA lawyers for limiting 10 extended family members from boarding earlier. That’s the “PC”, “Entitled”, “I’m a Victim”, and “Snowflake” world we live in now. G’day!

  13. 10 years ago, in my mid-40’s, a congenital spine defect caught up with me and I was in a wheel chair for over a year (until a second surgery from a different doc took care of it). I’m sure I didn’t look like I needed a wheel chair, but I couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds at a time. Of course, I flew with my own wheel chair because — well, I NEEDED A WHEEL CHAIR — so that helped to remove suspicion (I hope). I would always tip $5.

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