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. To all those saying, ‘just have them being a handicapped placard’ , well many have handicapped plates that would be awkward to remove and 95% of the people with handicapped plates and placards are faking it to get good parking too. People suck and its getting worse.

  2. this all seems to be because ADA is taken to an extreme. Title III of the ADA says that private businesses, and commercial facilities need to extend access to the same services, facilities and programs as anyone for people with disabilities.

    now, it should be argued that by letting them skip the lines that they are not being allowed access to the same facilities and programs that a person without a disability uses!

  3. So, for those of us who truly need a wheelchair due to injury or disease, why not allow me to drive my wheelchair onto the plane and then tie down my wheelchair and I will do the flight in my wheelchair. That would eliminate all of these “miracle flights” and people getting priority boarding just because they are in a wheelchair, because if I use my chair I can board in the group that I’m assigned to based on my ticket.

  4. How about having the FA make an announcement before disembarking to ask the people in seats x, y, z etc — those people who boarded early with wheelchair assistance — to remain on board until all the remaining passengers have disembarked? When wheelchair pax board the seat numbers could be noted down; since they are boarding early there would be enough time for recording their seat numbers. Those who legitimately need a wheelchair would find it easier to disembark after all the other passengers have disembarked. For the wheelchair “miracles” it might at least be a little bit embarrassing to be called out as people who had boarded early who are then unwilling to wait to disembark with the “legitimate” wheelchair users. Unfortunately, I doubt they would be embarrassed but it might be worth a try!

  5. Living in the Dominican Republic, this is an incredibly common sight…. the wheelchair brigade on any flight to/from Santo Domingo. Personally, I think it’s silly… why are they in such a hurry to get to their seats in the back of the plane? It’s a rhetorical question… I know why. It’s because they’ve brought WAY too much stuff as carry-on, and they want to take up the overhead space. I guarantee you, if the airline truly limited carry-ons, the wheelchair brigade would disband.

  6. Don’t blame the ADA. There is no “extreme” ADA. If you were disabled you would know that being disabled is expensive and makes daily living difficult and travel impossible for most. The problem is able-bodied people abusing a system that isn’t for them.

  7. Yup I been on many SW flights with the old scammers and some younger doing this routine. I want to call it out. SW needs to do something about this. I pay good money to get A list of business class sometimes and these jerks pull the I can’t walk card. I garuntee you once you have to prove you have an issue its over. Get on it now SW and other airlines.

  8. IMO it’s the airports that are at fault here : as the population is gotten older and fatter the distances to the gates have increased exponentially. I think for these people, as it is for me, it’s not a matter of boarding first or last but the difficulty of reaching distant gates.
    I’m partially disabled, I can stand and walk a couple of hundred meters but a kilometer and often more is a long and painful ordeal and I can’t always reach the connection in time.

    What’s needed are golf carts lifts and/or more moving sidewalks

  9. Miraculous in-air-healing effect of air travel, right before the eyes of millions !
    All hail the aircraft Gods of BOEING !!!
    Hard snicker.

  10. I agree that a handicapped placard with ID should be shown to receive wheelchair assistance and benefits at airports. If you are disabled to the point where the government recognizes it with a placard for your use in public, then you should be entitled to assistance at an airport. Otherwise, well, travel has become rather uncomfortable for us all these days. I am sorry you get winded; perhaps you should take a seat in the boarding area and rest until boarding is complete.

  11. Perhaps people use wheelchairs because the distances from check-in to the gate have become bloody ridiculous and therebis not seating along the way on which to rest before continuing the slog on old knees and hips.

  12. I’m 75 (wife 70) and paid to board early. Got A1and A2. 15 got on with wheelchairs then another 6 kids. Finally boarded number 30. Got to Houston and all but 3 got up and left unassisted. Don’t fly Southwest very often and now I know why. Complained to SW but heard nothing. Sticking with Delta where most passengers are civilized.

  13. @Duncan:
    > I was injured on an island in a moped accident. The ‘hospital’ was dirty and had flies all over. I wanted out if that country A.A. wouldn’t let me fly for 72 hrs. w/o a Dr’s. note. The ‘hotels’ Doctor/bartender/pool guy,wrote it out. I got to the airport a guy saw me and told me in broken English for $100 he would put me on the plane in 10 min. 10 min later he helped me out the wheelchair, and boarded me. I bypassed check in,security, and at the gate agent from AA clearly knew this guy read my note snd waved me on. Everyone on that flight saw the whole process and were LIVID,as they took upto 2 hrs to navigate thru. Guy in back of me with a 5 year old in tow was encouraging his kid to continually kick the back of my seat,inheard him telling him,oh he’s ok. He was lying that he’s hurt to special treatment. This is why you shouldn’t lie he said to the boy. Road rash visible, cracked ribs, clavicle fracture ect. Ambo waiting on tarmac at BOS and then hole plane STILL claimed I didn’t need the wheelchair service. Some people suck

    And this is why the idea of using a handicap tag for pre-board doesn’t work. While it was nowhere near as bad my wife once used a chair because of an injury while traveling. She could walk but only with a lot of pain. Nothing visible, but anyone who saw me helping her move certainly should have realized there was an issue.

    > People who truly need a wheelchair will have their own. So only give priority to people who brought their own wheelchair or walker. Problem solved!

    People who are absolutely confined to a wheelchair will have their own. Anybody in an airport chair can walk–but you don’t know how far or with what limitations. Being able to walk or not able to walk isn’t a binary situation!

    @John Wayne:
    > This is so easy to fix? Require a medical statement that you require assistance and you get it, otherwise wait like everybody else. And only 1 family member to accommodate the one who needs assistance? That way grandma can’t bring all the nieces, cousins, daughters and sons

    I’ll agree with the medical statement part–although I would also count a handicap placard. Any place large enough to have wheelchair service will have doctors so the issue of those who are injured while traveling is covered.

    However, your one family member bit could be a problem. I was usually the one to push my MIL’s chair because I have the strength to navigate curbs and the like, none of her other family members did. However, we had no language in common.

  14. While I do understand some of the comments it is simply sad that people would fake a disability to gain early access.
    I am disabled and use a wheelchair, but on a recent flight I did not take my own chair (airlines are not careful) and transferred to an airline wheelchair at the gate. Several SW airlines personnel asked me repeatedly if I could walk, and another told me I was putting on a good act. So why should someone with a disability have to justify it or prove it, because others have abused it?
    As for the handicap placard idea, many people with disabilities do not drive and would not be able to show this. So maybe not the best idea.

  15. @ED
    I think you don’t understand the effort involved to get a handicap plate or placard. 95% are not fake in America. The dr has to fill out a legal form that has to be submitted to the DMV. When approved, you get the placard. I broke my femur in an accident but I wasn’t going to be laid up long enough to justify the effort.

    There is accountability on multiple levels.

  16. My husband needs a wheelchair in the airport. He can walk so he does not have his own wheelchair. But on a flight he is on oxygen and can only fly with his POC (not tanks allowed). But with his POC he can only walk maybe 5-10 minutes before he desaturates and must sit. Not everyone who needs a wheelchair in the airport needs it constantly. His mother had congestive heart failure. Same thing. Could walk, looked, fine, but not very far. (My husband is on oxygen so looks visibly handicapped). So not everyone who needs a wheelchair at the airport has their own. But I agree something needs to be done.

  17. Easy way to stop this is require advanced notice of being “handicap” and then seat them toward the very back of the plane, so that they would be last to get off when “assistance” could be provided.

    That would nip a lot of the fakery in the bud, while being fair to those with legitimate needs, since their time on the aircraft evens out and there will be ample time to meet their needs getting them off the plane.

  18. should have clarified– a bit more time on the plane, but they get first access to bins in place of getting off just a few minutes later. only a crooked ADA lawyer would find that burdensome.

  19. To all those saying that a handicap placard must be shown, that sure as hell won’t work for those of us who, say, twisted an ankle the night before (happened to me) or any other reason that does not allow the traveler to get such placard. Jesus people, think for a few minutes before you post.

  20. To those suggesting that people would disability should be stuck in the back of the plane…. Shame on you.
    So we are to be treated as second class citizens because we have a disability?
    Let’s think about the implications of being seated in the back for both those of us with disability and to the flight staff.. If I cannot walk that far then I would have to use an aisle seat which is difficult for the flight staff and more work. And it is also hard on my body. Because the aisles are very narrow, can you get bumped and bruised.
    Able body people don’t have to go through this so they don’t care.

    My placard for disability for my car is on my license plate.. So this is also not a reasonable option.. What would your suggestion for someone who doesn’t have a license then or a younger child if they don’t have a disability placard?

    I am fine with having to use my own personal wheelchair. I prefer not to because I have had both my manual and my electric wheelchairs. Damaged on several locations by the airline.
    And it is a pain in the butt to get them to fix the damage!!
    Not everyone has personal wheelchairs because they don’t need it all the time. They might need it in a grocery store or Walmart or to walk long distances in an airport but those are not every day activities, and therefore they might only have a cane and only use the wheelchair occasionally which is why they have wheelchairs at the airport.

    There are ways to take care of and eliminate people that abuse the system without hurting those of us with disabilities..
    Those of you that have your panties in a bunch over having to wait don’t realize that these fakers hurt us too.

    This is not just a Southwest issue.. This happens on all airlines whether there are assigned seats or not.

    It is much more difficult to have a person with a disability board after everybody is on board then before which is why they have us pre board. We actually slow the process down when we get on after everyone.

    I’m sorry that my disability is such an inconvenience for you as an able body person but I will gladly switch with you. And be the last person to get on and take whatever seat available if you want to take on living in a wheelchair and the pain that I deal with on a daily basis..

  21. If you twisted an ankle the night before, why would you want to fly anyways. why not stay home and rest that ankle.

  22. Instead of serious punishment for abusing the privilege to board, the airline will come up with a rule that punishes all passengers, instead or serious sanctions against the people who abused the privileged. I know a lady who does this on a regular basis, she belongs the Sun City West Ski Club. Goes to all the resorts skis with no problems, then boards the plane as a cripple. Sure would be nice to bar her from flying again. Take a car and park in a handicap spot have the police issue a citation and take her insurance. What is the matter with this country, is we don’t deal with the offenders we make rules that hinder the people who follow them.

  23. In 2014, I broke my ankle about a month before I was scheduled to fly. Although I was off the crutches and on a cane by the time the flight came around, I used a wheelchair in the airport (and TSA’s wooden cane to get through security). While waiting in the boarding area, I got out of the wheelchair and, VISIBLY USING THE CANE, went to the bathroom and came back. People accused me of faking, even though I deliberately deplaned last so that I didn’t have to deal with the “throng.” (I was on a direct flight so it didn’t matter how late that made me.)

    The reason? I had taken off my brace and checked it. Consider how legs swell on flights and you can understand why. It was a bit satisfying when I got to baggage claim (in the wheelchair), hobbled to get my bag and then immediately sat down and put the brace back on. But I didn’t get any apologies.

    Ever since then I’ve left the issue alone. That said, I always pay for assigned seating.

  24. You’re all missing the actual reason — which isn’t mentioned in the article or the comments:

    “I just don’t want to wait to board”

    It’s either too difficult to navigate the whole boarding group(s), fighting other passengers, or I just plain don’t feel like standing there waiting.

    That’s the actual reason.

  25. I was on a recent flight from Tokyo Narita to DFW on AA (business class). This fake wheelchair issue has become worse than the “support dog” craze that we went through !! There were (I counted them) 27 wheelchairs (for a 787-9 that probably holds about 270 passengers. And of course each wheelchair passenger came with one or two (or more) relatives to board with them. And then “those needing a little extra time boarding” – there were more than 40 of them. Most looked more able-bodied than me !! By the time I boarded in business class (I was first in that line), there were nearly 100 people who had pre-boarded, and the bins in business class were at least half full (hard to find a place to stow my one rollaboard). When we landed in DFW, as I stood in the short line at Immigration, I saw some of those “wheelchair passengers” hustling (sans wheelchair) to get in line.

    This needs to stop. There really ARE people who need wheelchairs (10% of the population???), or a few minutes extra to board. But, c’mon folks. Enough is enough. The airlines need to crack down, just as they did on the “support animals” (shoot, I couldn’t even get my “Support Alligator” on for early boarding with me …). Stop this nonsense. Crack down on those abusing the system.


  26. Just want to board first. Southwest needs to rethink their boarding procedure.

  27. As a recent able bodied Southwest passenger, I also notice that although the gate attendant announces that “family” boarding is for those with children “6 and under” with “maximum of 2 adults” – any families with pretty much any age children and several additional family members (adults) are allowed to board. Southwest just doesn’t want to rock the boat so to speak.

  28. I was pleasantly surprised in Tulsa last weekend. The gate attendant made it clear that if children were pre boarding they could be accompanied by an adult but additional adults (grandparents, aunts, uncles and such would not be pre boarding with them. I thanked her for doing this. It was SWA

  29. We were on a flight in Europe recently, Paris or Germany, can’t remember and they did ask us wheelchairuser (my husband was the only one) to deplane last. It was no problem so that is a good suggestion I think

  30. The Aba provides for one assistant or person. (PCA) to accompany a person with disabilities.
    I even have that with my bus pass and metro pass in the dmv area.
    I had to have a doctor fill out a five page form and go through an actual interview to get it. It includes 1 person to accompany me free on the bus or metro..

    On the airlines I am allowed one helper person but I still have to pay for their airfare. When I buy my tickets. I go into additional requests and let them know that. I have a wheelchair and what my level of need is And that I will be having a PCA accompanying me.

    Airlines are within their rights. Should you die additional persons to accompany the person with disabilities? But they’ve gotten to the point where they’re scared of lawsuits because people threaten to sue them for discrimination. When in reality, they aren’t even disabled..

    Allowing more than 1 person to company. The person in a wheelchair is on the airline and that they do need to crack down on..

  31. @George Rattner:
    > I’m partially disabled, I can stand and walk a couple of hundred meters but a kilometer and often more is a long and painful ordeal and I can’t always reach the connection in time.

    > What’s needed are golf carts lifts and/or more moving sidewalks

    Sidewalks–fine for the able bodied. Not so fine for many of the people for whom the distance is a problem. You have to quickly step onto them and off of them–if you can’t do that stay away! (Likewise, escalators.)

    @Karen Cushnyr
    > As for the handicap placard idea, many people with disabilities do not drive and would not be able to show this. So maybe not the best idea.

    You don’t need to drive to have a placard. You need to drive to have a handicap license plate. Placards are for hanging in the vehicle you are in–thus are typically possessed by people who are not drivers.

    > If you twisted an ankle the night before, why would you want to fly anyways. why not stay home and rest that ankle.

    And what if you are flying home?

  32. Lots of good suggestions on how fixable this problem can be but unfortunately the airlines or the government for that matter don’t care.

  33. Any one of you who would like to trade places with me, please let me know. I would gladly give up the multiple surgeries, the cane, the wheelchair and I will even throw in my Handicap Placard if I can have the ability to walk without pain again. As for mjs who suggested “make them sit in the back of the plane”, if I could walk to the back of the plane I would not be in a wheelchair in the first place. And to all of the whiners on here, be careful of your words, they may come back to bite you some day. Possibly you think you are the only one who may have a connection, need to use the restroom or some other valid reason such as there are no wheelchairs available. Will I or can I walk to the Baggage Claim, not on your life but I will hobble up the jetway to wait for the wheelchair to finally arrive.

  34. Maybe someone should start handicap airways. Then you can get the services you require/need/want/desire. I feel bad for people that aren’t 100% but why is your handicap everyone else’s problem.. Why can’t you drive? Take a ship whatever. People have lives and jobs etc. You’re not our problem.

  35. @robert Why should I have to suffer 6 hours of someone else’s kid kicking my seat? Waiting forever for fake and real gimps to board? Your handicap is not everyone’s problem. Your kid is not my problem. WE all pay for the service. Do like they did in ancient Greece. Can’t function? Get thrown off a cliff. Walk, drive or take a private plane if you can’t survive in the real world.

  36. I’m a wheelchair user due to Multiple Sclerosis. I bring my own motorized wheelchair on flights. I’m always last to get off the plane, as I have to wait for my wheelchair to be brought up, which is fine. If there’s a connecting flight, I need at least an hour layover and that sometimes is cutting it short. The suggestion for a disability placard—with the supporting certificate that matches the name of the passenger—-is a good one. Many people also abuse these placards (there are many deceased people whose kids are using these for years).
    I’ve seen these fakers on many SWA flights. They are harming people who actually live with real disabilities.

  37. Peter your comments are extremely crude and uncaring for those who do have disabilities. So for that I wish you the debilitating injury or handicap upon you so that you may be the one thrown off the cliff someday.

  38. Wow that’s a very selfish attitude. I hope you be er end up in a wheelchair. You should just keep your comments to your self. Do you think we enjoy being handicap. We don’t. Everywhere we go people look at us like we have snakes or something on us. I don’t fly because I prefer not to. But I also learned at an early age if you don’t have any thing nice to say then don’t say anything at all

  39. Another reason I only use SW for short hops when I have no other choice. SW could figure out something to stop this kind of abuse. if they really wanted to. At least limit the pre-boarder to one companion r when possible.

  40. Why should they board first at all? Theoretically they start them before general boarding but with the way airlines are operating you are lucky if you get anywhere near regular boarding time. So just let them get in line with everyone else in their group. They are already sitting either in a wheel chair or in the gate area or in the plane so sitting in the chair in line is just fine. Or, if you really want to see this disappear, let them board after general boarding is complete. That is actually a big benefit because they don’t have to sit in that airplane seat while everyone bumps into them and crosses over them. Problem solved.

  41. As a traveler, with status, who earned it, the old fashion way, by sitting in plane seats, this really annoys me. People are geniuses when it comes to ways to cheat, and it’s a shame Southwest does not have a better way of policing this. Anybody claiming to be handicapped when they’re not is simply a lowlife and deserved bad karma.

  42. Personally, I avoid this problem by only flying airlines that have assigned seats. I wouldn’t fly SW if you paid me.

  43. Recently in Oakland we had three obvious wheelchair passengers waiting to board. A man jumped up front of the line and presented his boarding pass and motioned his wife to join him. She refused saying these wheelchair should go first. The agent took his pass even as we all protested. she said she was diffusing the situation. The man hurried down the jetway to get the first seat. Several people commented as we boarded but the crew said let it go or they would remove us. Upon arrival the man jumped up and hurriedly exited.

  44. @Dee More
    Obviously you are not disabled … But Hey! Thanks for trying to tell us what is better for us!!
    We sometimes need an isle wheelchair to get to our seat … I do for anything beyond row 4 …. Have you ever tried using one on a full plane? It sucks. We get bumped and bruised more. It’s harder on me and hard on the flight crew!
    Many of us need special accommodations and have requested those accommodations which is also why we board first.
    I don’t expect people to understand what it’s like to live with a disability or to have to use a wheelchair but I do expect a certain level of respect and courtesy.
    Humanity in general makes sick these days … Just look at the comments here to see the level of discrimination there is against persons with disabilities!
    This article was not meant for people to bash persons with disabilities but rather to point out that there are able-bodied people that fake to get what they think is special privileges. They don’t live with the pain or the inconvenience or the difficulties that we do.
    The fakers negativiely affect us equally or actually more!

    Quit telling me what is fair or in “my best interest” when you have no idea what it’s like to be wheelchair-bound!!

  45. As one of those people who occasionally make use of a wheelchair, I will tell you much of it has to do with airport design and airline scheduling. When making connections at Houston Intercontinental, for instance, United sometimes gives me only 30 minutes to make my connection. I walk with a cane due to knee issues, but I am fully capable of walking between gates if I have a reasonable time. But unless the gates are next to each other, 30 minutes isn’t reasonable. I’d really prefer the golf cart option, but those cannot be pre-scheduled.

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