Bogus wheelchair requests frustrate airport workers
Vince Vitrano, Stephanie Graham
Walk through any airport and odds are you'll find yourself not only dodging crowds of people, but navigating around a growing number of wheelchairs. Peter Scherrer manages a small airport.
"We've handled maybe a hundred wheelchairs a year. Now there are some certain times we can handle a hundred wheelchairs in a day," he explains.
Scherrer is not the ony one scrambling. One mid-size airport saysit keeps 300 wheelchairs on hand at all times now and a large, major facility says it receives 2,000 requests for special assistance every day. That's partly because more people with disabilities are traveling, but disability advocates are now blowing the whistle on able-bodied passengers who they say are playing the system to save time.
Kleo King is with the United Spinal Association. She says, "People who don't really need special assistance or have a disability sometimes do say they're a person with a disability to go through that special line or to the head of the line to get through security quicker."
They also do it to get on the plane first. It's hard to say officially how many of the requests for wheelchairs are bogus, but King estimates it at 15% nationwide. That makes Barb Likos, an avid traveler and mom to a special needs child, angry. "When people abuse the system it makes it harder for my child to access the accommodations that he needs, and it's frustrating and it's rude."
But the airlines say they feel grounded when it comes to indentifying cheaters. By law, they are required to give assistance to anyone who asks, or risk hefty fines. They have to be careful of what they ask.
"They can ask questions about what do they need for assistance. They can't ask, 'What is your disability?' and invade peoples' privacy," King points out.
Advocates and airline personel say they're hearing more complaints about so-called 'miracle flights'. Scherrer explains, "It's a phrase that's coined by a lot of the flight attendants. They see a person come on with a wheelchair and when they get to the destination, for some reason, they actually are able to walk again."
King adds, "If, in fact, you really didn't need assistance, you're not going to keep up the ruse and wait fifteen, twenty minutes for wheelchair assistance to get off the plane."
That part really bothers Barb, who believes she has a simple solution: "I think we need a universal disability pass. It's recognized legitimately throughout all the different places we would travel."
It exists in other countries, but the Spinal Association says there currently aren't plans for that here. Meantime, the honor system rules the runway.
"We want to spend more of our time providing the service that you need rather than sitting there trying to figure out if someone's trying to manipulate the system," Scherrer says.
What should you do if you see someone traveling who appears to be abusing the disability assistance? You should do nothing. Disabilities are not always evident. Airline officials make it clear they want those who truly need the service to use.