20 Passengers Use Wheelchairs To Board Early On Southwest, Then Walk Off The Aircraft Fine On Arrival

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 make much of their money on tips. It’s never clear the right amount to tip. Some feel $5 is appropriate, others tip $20. There’s no medical verification needed to request this. And some people ask for the service who don’t, strictly speak, ‘need it’.

When a flight has numerous passengers with wheelchair assistance on boarding, and then most of those passengers get off themselves and walk out of the terminal – walking right past the waiting wheelchairs on the jet bridge – it’s known as a “miracle flight.” Here’s one recent Southwest Airlines flight where 20 passengers used wheelchairs to board, and only 3 used them to get off. 17 passengers experienced an inflight miracle.

Let’s be clear: there are certainly cases where someone might need assistance on boarding and not deplaning. But that’s also highly unlikely to be the case for 17 passengers (85% of those needing wheelchair assistance) here.

In addition to the medicinal benefits of flying that cures these passengers, explanations may include a desire for:

  • Better seating which is unique to 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 on United. If you need priority boarding assistance you aren’t in the last boarding group, and the full-sized carry on ban on the cheapest tickets is enforced by boarding group.

  • Priority check-in and security. But 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.

Since the biggest benefit – seat selection, in addition to airport priority – comes when flying Southwest, it’s little surprise this is noted most in social media with Southwest flights.

The reason this concerns me is that people asking for wheelchair assistance who do not need it prevents or delays people who do need assistance from getting it. 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’).

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 think when Southwest gets a request for a wheelchair – they should charge the same “priority boarding fee” that they do for early-bird check-in. And they can charge 1 (yes ONE) person that is needed to help them get down the jet bridge and on-board. And then at the gate, the A1-15 that PAID a lot more for that business class distinction, get on BEFORE the wheelchair brigade. (On a side note, I thought families get to board between A and B groups, but while I find it unfair, I do understand that in many cases they need to sit together, and paying an extra $25 each way for a family of 4 is $200 is a lot for a struggling family.)

    About placards – not all of us have one, especially if just finishing medical procedures that you are expected to recover fully from. When I found the week before our flight that my husband would not be able to walk all the way to the terminal, I immediately logged on and put in early bird check-in and called the airport about cart transportation so he would not need to wait in line too long before boarding where he could take his time to get situated. At the airport, I asked for a cart but one was not available, so they changed our pass to get a wheelchair access and I was allowed to push him to the terminal. So yes, we did “jump the line” but not by a significant amount. What was worse was when we got off the plane – we were told all wheel chair passengers need to wait until everyone cleared first. We did as instructed and when we got off — all the wheelchairs were gone! I had to go to another gate and wait until they boarded to get a chair for my husband. So if Southwest is listening – you should have the wheelchairs there for getting off the plane but LOCKED UP until the wheel chair folks are allowed off. Then those truly needing it will get it and those that can walk off the plane can keep on walking until they get to baggage claim.

  2. Meanwhile, those of us who have actual Service Animals for valid reasons must submit multiple forms and get preapproval prior to flying. Definitely, a double standard against those who require the assistance of a service animal (dog).

  3. I love people that “obviously” know everything. Based on your intuitive knowledge, you know my condition; so I will not elaborate. Seems you are “bashing” in your first line. Like you stated I was just pointing out how rude able-bodied passengers are. Your comment was echoing all of the previous comments about “miracle” passengers and how they dilute the preboarding needs of the few that do need assistance. It is people that do not understand the situation and make unfounded comments that also distract from the problem.

  4. Traveling solo with my blind spouse (I am 73, he is 84) is a challenge on a good day. Yes, my husband can walk but I am unable to do “guided sight” with him through the airport and lug our carryons. I need to have a free arm for him to grasp. As is walking with his cane in a crowded airport while trying to lug a carry on….so, I ask for wheelchair transport for him to and from the gate. It is still a challenge getting on the plane, putting bags away and getting seated. It takes additional time. While I am struggling away, yes, I see many able-bodied people taking advantage of the services offered. I only wish they would take a moment to realize how lucky they are to be mobile and leave the designated assistance to the people who truly need to use it.

  5. ITT people angry that someone taking advantage of a loophole.
    Don’t like it? Start your own airline and you make the rules.

  6. Nothing but a bunch of Blue Falcons aka Buddy F*@Ker$. These kind of folks have a special place in #ell!!!!

  7. I have never seen more than 5 wheelchairs on a domestic flight. I am United Gold and A List. Stop whining and get on with your lives.

  8. With 10-20 departure chairs, and the number of enroute “miracles”, airlines / airports seldom have enough chairs upon arrival for those of us that don’t experience divine intervention in flight. Thankfully we can fly F, so we often get the only chair at arrival. We’ve given up our chair before for someone with close connections, and often wait 20 minutes or much more, for additional chairs.

  9. Assistance between gates that is a “long” walk should be those little golf carts they use. Wheel chai boarding should be for people checking a wheel chair only—ride to jet, gate check, ride away in your wheel chair. This would eliminate 99% of the miracle flight cures. As for animals, they do not belong on the flight with passengers I’m allergic to them it’s one thing to put up with a service animal that performs a specific service such as hey seeing-eye dog or a dog that alerts a patient to a seizure. Emotional support is just plain bullshit, take the train or drive or take a Xanax!

  10. I need a wheelchair at my home airport, but not when I fly into smaller airports, so I’m probably one of those “miraculous” people. Even when I don’t use a wheelchair, I preboard because I move slowy.

  11. On a recent flight from Montreal (YUL) to Brussels (BRU), my travel companion and I were amazed when we arrived at the gate to see 35 people in wheelchairs all of whom boarded with their companion traveler immediately following the business class passengers. My comment at the time was there would be a “miracle” half way across the Atlantic as many of these wheelchair assisted passengers would be up and down to use the facilities and without doubt not require any off loading once we landed in Brussels. We were not disappointed on either count.

  12. Travel with a handicapped person once without a wheelchair! My husband has difficulty walking because he was afflicted with shingles which left him dizzy all the time! Flying is miserable but our son lives in another state! Too bad for you haters. I wouldn’t wish wheelchair assistance on anyone!

  13. Travel with a handicapped person once without a wheelchair! My husband has difficulty walking because he was afflicted with shingles which left him dizzy all the time! Flying is miserable but our son lives in another state! Too bad for you haters. I wouldn’t wish wheelchair assistance on anyone!

  14. The perceived breeze through formalities of wheelchairs at any airport is more for the pushers rather than the chair occupants. They need to get the job done quickly so they can move on to the next.
    Also, due to limited mobility I always book Business of First, so by virtue of that I am entitled to the perceived perks anyway.
    I’m guessing most of the ‘fakers’ are Economy and/or total non-status and are otherwise not eligible for any perks.

  15. @Deby At least in most industries, it is not legal to charge for accommodating a disability. I know air travel operates under different rules for handling disabilities, but I would assume at least that part is the same. Also, I’m not sure why you think the A1-A15 pax “paid a lot more” for that. Quite a lot of those passengers get that just from having a Southwest card (I speak as one of those.) Even when it’s not covered by the card, it’s typically available at check-in for $30-$40 in my experience.

    As for getting on the plane with a wheelchair and off without one, it’s not that uncommon for people who actually need a wheelchair to do this. It’s not like they’re only (or even mostly) used by people who are wholly unable to walk. Additionally, for some types of illnesses or injuries, walking downhill is significantly more painful and/or risky (fall risk) vs. walking uphill, so that grade in the jet bridge can be a problem, especially for 737s or especially regional jets where the slope down to the plane on the jet bridge is more steep. And the person who pushed the chair – along with the chair itself – is already there at the gate, so, especially for people who have issues with downward slopes, they might as well use the chair to get to the bottom of the jet bridge. Aside from issues with walking uphill, issues with standing also come into play here. On boarding, aside from during pre-board, there is usually a significant line of people standing there waiting to board (or standing in the aisle waiting for the people in front of them to get their bags in the overhead and take their seat.) The same is not true on deplaning, nor do you generally have a bunch of people and their bags all around you during deplaning that could bump into you or that you could trip over. The wait (and crowding) during deplaning is usually entirely while you’re still at your seat, during which time you can remain seated. Once you actually start walking off the plane, you normally have plenty of space around you and no reason to stop and stand around, so it’s not as hard to do for many types of injuries/disabilities.

    As for “walking right past the wheelchairs by the gate,” at least in my experience, those are typically not available for anyone to just grab and use on their own. Just because there’s a chair there doesn’t mean there’s an attendant available to actually push it. Unfortunately, even when you request one, sometimes airlines (or airports, as the case may be) drop the ball and don’t actually have them there. It’s not like Disney where they’re available to grab (or, once in the parks, rent) and have someone in your party push or push yourself. I’ve thankfully only had maybe half a dozen or so times where someone in my party needed a chair (all due to temporary conditions) and I’ve already encountered this a time or two. Plus, there have been times where I just didn’t think (or in a case or two, didn’t know) to request this in advance, as it’s (again, thankfully) not something I normally need to do while traveling. And, for people whose injury/disability allows them to walk/stand for shorter periods, but makes them need a chair for longer ones, you generally have a lot more standing around in the airport before your flight than after, especially if you’re not one of the people who, like many/most of us here, is blessed with access to things like PreCheck, priority check-in queues, etc. that dramatically limit the time spent standing around in lines. My terminal-door-to-gate (or lounge) time is probably under 5 minutes about as often as not, but not everyone has that luxury.

    So, yeah, I don’t doubt that there are people who abuse this just for the early boarding or marginally better seating (it’s not like you get extra legroom or anything,) but, at least from my own experiences, I’d guess more of the people who you see getting on with a chair and off without one actually need the assistance – and space around them during boarding – than the article and a number of the comments suggest. It’s not a particularly uncommon need, especially since many of the same issues that affect ability to walk also affect ability to maintain balance, so being bumped around by people and their luggage in closely-packed boarding queues creates a fall risk that can be mitigated by early boarding without a bunch of people crowded around you (whether in a chair or not, though a chair obviously mitigates fall risk even further.)

    Getting rid of abuse where reasonably possible is good, but I’d rather airlines err on the side of giving assistance to people who don’t need it than on the side of not giving it to people who do.

  16. Shame on the evil people on here!

    As a person with invisible disabilities and pain and the ability to walk that comes and goes, NO ONE should every judge anyone else! Life is too unpredictable for anyone to know.

    I prefer to walk off if able, yet still need to have early boarding because of the unpredictability of my disease. The service to de-plane is often a long wait, if they show up at all! So I will walk if I can, not miraculous just tired of waiting on others.

    Fully abled people should STOP whining over this. Stop worrying about others. Just enjoy YOUR life.

    Count your blessings you do NOT have an illness that puts you in this situation!

    I will gladly swap my medical issues to give up pre-boarding. Would you like to have my medical conditions so you board early?

    THINK instead of complaining.

  17. I have to use a wheelchair. Recently became unable to walk steadily on my feet. Like..fall down kinda thing. I too saw a bunch of people on sw airlines do this. Unfortunately for me, they all got in line pushing in front of me. They had to use the airline chair to pull me through the taken preferred seats down the aisle strapped into it. Then I saw more than half of them get up and walk with no problems getting off the airplane. I always wait till everyone’s off. As I don’t want to make people wait for me. Shame on those using this to board first..shame if not needing it

  18. I recently boarded a Qatar flight from DFW and there were more than 60 wheelchairs lined up at the gate. There was a noticeable ethnic similarity for those in wheelchairs as we watched most of them walk to the gate to get in the wheelchair. Upon arrival many of the wheelchair-bound raced us out the jet way to immigration and customs. Miracles indeed. I believe that if you require a wheelchair to get into the plane, then you should be required to wait for a wheelchair to disembark. As others previously noted, the required number of wheel chairs would be greatly reduced by this approach.

  19. @Don:
    > Assistance between gates that is a “long” walk should be those little golf carts they use. Wheel chai boarding should be for people checking a wheel chair only—ride to jet, gate check, ride away in your wheel chair.

    And what about my MIL? Those golf carts do nothing about the lines. They do nothing about the fact she needed assistance while walking–and nobody can touch you while you’re going through the metal detector. (Why?? It beeps, you find the metal and rescreen both of them. A parent can carry a young child, an assistant should be able to help someone who needs it.) Even with assistance she couldn’t have assumed the position for the imaging scanners.

    There are a lot of people that can walk but with limitations–and for some those limitations fall between getting off and getting on.

  20. Horrifying that the original judgemental tweet has gotten press coverage and that there are so many comments agreeing with it! Disabilities aren’t an on/off switch between “normal” and “unable to function without a wheelchair.” I had a severe leg injury that affected my ability to walk long distances and stand in line. So yes, I could walk the length of a small jet unassisted (and I was working really hard at physical therapy to do that without a limp!) but I would have been in terrible pain walking/standing through baggage check, security, getting to my gate, gate waiting, and general boarding. My physical therapist encouraged me to walk as normally as possible where I could without severe pain and sign up for the wheelchair assist where I thought it would be too difficult. I was feeling really self-conscious about my injury in the first place because of comments like, “you’re not old enough to be disabled,” now I’m appalled that had I flown Southwest I would have been filmed and shamed for doing what my health care providers advised. Truly upsetting how terrible people can be.

  21. I watched the wheelchair brigade line up at SWA gate in Austin (15 wheelchairs waiting in a line). One “disabled” woman in a wheelchair was wearing 4-inch heels.
    I just have NO sympathy.

  22. My husband needs a wheelchair. He has balance problems and on a good day, he could walk maybe 30 feet without falling. In the jostling and pushing attitudes in the airport, if he gets hit or pushed, even the slightest, he is unable to maintain his balance. Most of the time when we get to the airport, I end up pushing him the entire way. I have been told this is because of those who don’t need a chair getting them with not enough people to push them. I’m 72 and my husband is 76. I would be glad to submit a doctor’s order or whatever to prove we need wheelchair assistance. Believe me when I say that the medical bills have taken a toll. We cannot afford to have him falling down and getting injured. If he falls in the airport, they want to whisk him away to get medical attention. Then we are up a creek without a paddle. This next time we fly, we have bought a scooter to take because when we arrive at a place to stay, I need a way to get him around without me holding on to him every minute. Do not assume that just because someone needs a wheelchair, they are faking it.

  23. @vbscript2 One cannot use handicapped parking without a placard. A simple “note from the doctor” or “pay for the early bird check-in” in order to get wheelchair assistance – which is what we did, would alleviate those truly not needing it for those that do. I am not complaining about those that truly need it, but it’s the same everywhere. People who don’t need it abuse it for those that do. Ever break your leg and have to wait 30-45 minutes for a scooter at the grocery store only to have a scooter maniac speed past you and run into your broken leg?
    I have travelled business class for work in the past and paid sometimes $150 more to be one of those first 15 on the plane so I can get off and get to my connection quickly. This time, I paid just $25 each more so we could get EB check-in and be able to board early since we did need more time to get settled than usual. We boarded first, and got off last and there were no wheelchairs left! The flight attendant apologized and said so many people hop off first and just take one (if you need extra time getting on, it stands to reason you need extra time leaving and should be patient and wait. It’s rather rude to hold up an entire line of people because you are slower.) I wonder if Southwest has considered having the wheelchair folks board from the rear? Or having you show your ticket to get your wheelchair at the end of the flight? Most people with temporary disabilities would not mind the minor inconvenience to discourage abusers.
    We recently went to an event where they did offer transportation to the various locations for those needing it, and for those with disabilities, they got to sit in the shade and WAIT until their able bodied party made it through the line arrived before entering any event. Totally reasonable.
    I do agree with the person that mentioned a golf cart for those that just needed to NOT WALK the long way to the gate and then to baggage at the other end. That actually would have been my husband’s preference, since he is the kind of person that even with his cane will stand if an elderly, pregnant, or visibly disabled person needed his seat. It’s a shame that entitlement has replaced common sense and respect for each other.

  24. I work for a major US airline and often will see our flight attendants park in handicap spaces in the employee parking lot with handicap hangtags displayed on their rearview mirrors.These flight attendants are showing up for 10 to 15 hour international flights where they will be walking up and down the aisles for hours… not all scammers are paying passengers

  25. My spouse is a disabled Vietnam veteran. Has VA identification verifying 100% disabled. His disabilities are not always visible, but he is often in a great deal of pain. More often then not a wheel chair ride from one terminal to another is painful. He often decides to walk rather than use a wheel chair upon landing, because of all the bumps along the way. If the golf cart rides were more readily available it sure would help. Unfortunately I see more carts un-maned and parked, or giving rides to people that don’t really need them. Please don’t judge people by the way they look. As I said disabilities are not always visible. I realize people take advantage of pre-boarding, etc., but some of us do not. My spouse is a proud veteran who would rather deal with his issues then ask for help. Please don’t judge unless you know the facts.

  26. Meanwhile passengers in true need of a wheelchair may miss their flights, as there are few if any left due to these tw*ta
    One way to discourage this disgusting selfishness in the future, the fakers didn’t really need ta wheelchair on the way to thee plane, but a passenger’s well placed foot as they selfish jack holes swan their way off again will mean they’ll sure need to be wheeled away..

  27. @LaurieRose:
    Have you not noticed that some of us have pointed out there are cases where you can’t tell who actually needs it? My MIL could have walked it with enough time–but she couldn’t handle standing in the security line. You would probably have realized she legitimately needed it, but there are others that are not so obvious.

  28. What LaurieRose said. My husband has a serious lung condition and is immunocompromised as well. We fly out of ATL which is too far for him to walk but he can often walk (with breaks) through a smaller airport (with no security line on landing) especially since wheelchairs have been long waits lately. He is on oxygen so no one thinks he’s cheating. That said, I do resent the people who take it unnecessarily because some of us really need it.

  29. For those stating that only wheelchair bound persons should get wheelchair preboarding you are missing a couple of key points.

    My 93 year-old mother for instance can walk with the use of a walker, but the jet bridge generally does not meet ADA standards of a 1:12 slope with more more than 30 feet of slope without a 5 foot long flat area. When the ADA law was passed, the airlines agreed that ADA stops at the terminal jet bridge entry door (I use to work for NW when ADA came out) and the airlines agreed to board anyone that would normally be fine under ADA rules, with wheelchairs.

    The jet bridges also have very uneven joints between the telescoping sections making it a challenge for some people that normally aren’t wheelchair bound. Jet bridges also move up and down automatically via auto-leveler (the little wheel that is at the end of the jet bridge that rests against the a/c fuselage and measures the sink and lift rates as people plane and deplane) The auto-leveler can be quite “jerky” and would pose a danger for people like my mother.

    As usual, any issue that seems simplistic to some is in reality much more complex.

  30. I don’t think that anyone in this post is talking about a 93 year old who needs additional assistance. I was boarding a Qatar flight from DFW and there were over sixty (60) wheel chairs pre-loaded and when we debarked in Doha I watched many of the “wheelchair bound” race us to customs and immigration, without wheelchairs or any other assistance. I think that if wheelchairs were last on and last off the number would be closer to 0 than 10 on a flight. I take nothing away from folks who need some help, but I’m not very tolerant of people who abuse the system!

  31. WOW! What a jaded view you have. There are so many variables that it is impossible to judge based upon what people might do at 2 different airports. Or even the same one arriving vs departing.

    For example when I left Houston I git a wheelchair twice. Once when my knee was really bad and another time when I broke my foot. It was a long walk to my gate and I didn’t want to risk it on how long it might take me to go that far..So I requested a wheelchair. The first time I didn’t even know that it would give me priority boarding. Except for Southwest where I can’t choose my seat in advance I actually prefer to board late. I have PTSD and being crowded is a trigger. Even in SW I would prefer to board in the late A or Early B group.

    When I arrived in FT Lauderdale the first time I took the Wheelchair. Even though I could have walked if I had to..I was slow and it was painful..

    The 2nd time when I arrived I was told that they didn’t have enough wheelchairs or attendants and that it would be 25 to 30 minutes. In that case the baggage claim was about1/4 of the distance that I had to go boarding. Maybe less. And there were others who needed the wheelchair much more than I. Besides I was excited to see my mom who was picking me up.. That excitement can temper the pain some. Or at least make you feel more like it is worth dealing with rather than sitting around feeling helpless waiting on someone and making the person who is picking you up wait on you.

    I am guessing that has a lot to do with the “miracles ” That people are complaining about.

    After all people mostly arrive for flights at different times. But they all leave the flight at the same time.

    I flew 2 weeks ago and I almost asked for a wheelchair because my back was spasming so badly. I decided not to sort of hoping that walking would help. (It didn’t but sitting on the flight did help some.) When I got to the gate I asked if someone could help me lift my carry on into the overhead bin since I was unable to lift without severe pain..I was shocked when they gave me priority boarding. Which worked out great because I got a seat with more leg room so my bad knee wasn’t screaming by the time we landed.. The last time I flew it was. And for the record even though I took the wheelchair that time I did not get priority boarding. I gouge that I could have, but I never thought to ask.

    This time I was going to bring my electric scooter since I was hurting so badly but my mom has an extra one. I should have brought it though because a relative got injured and they borrowed it..

    Thankfully once again the baggage claim was very close to the terminal. But the terminal where I left was fairly far. Especially when you factored in going through security. And standing in that line weaving around. Walking 100 yards is much different than walking 7 to 10 times that. Although those moving walkways can help, with my bad knee they are a little scary to step onto and off of..

    I’m not saying that no one ever abuses the system, but Why not give people the benefit of the doubt. There are so many medical conditions that you can’t easily see. And there are many reasons why someone can’t wait for a wheelchair. Like trying to mean he a connecting flight. Someone I know had that problem. No choice but to walk when they shouldn’t have, or miss their connection.

    Have a blessed day..Don’t judge, because you never want God to show you why you might choose not to wait for assistance, that you could really use.

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