Priority Boarding Scandal: Is Southwest Airlines Dealing with Wheelchair Misuse?

Southwest Airlines lets passengers pick their own seats once they’re on board the aircraft. The earlier you board, the better choice of seats you have.

And Southwest allows passengers with disabilities to preboard, before those paying for business select (“A1 – A15” boarding positions) and elite frequent flyers. This is largely on the honor system, and as we know most people lack honor.

This passenger complains that Southwest Airlines passengers are using wheelchairs to get priority boarding and don’t even seat in them, instead using the wheelchair as a luggage cart to push their carry on bags.

It’s a Puerto Rico flight, and these are notorious for passengers in wheelchairs that do not need them (and yes I know that not all disabilities are visually obvious, but the situation is clear when dozens of passengers walk off the plane but use the wheelchair to board early).

Some unscrupulous people request wheelchair assistance at the airport when they don’t need it, using their ‘injury’ for a whole bunch of benefits:

  • Early boarding gets them access to overhead bin space before other passengers, and avoids being forced to gate check bags.
  • It also gets around basic economy restrictions at United which are enforced by boarding group, netting a free carry on bag.
  • On Southwest they’d have their choice of seats on board.
  • Plus help skipping security lines.

The phenomenon of “miracle” or “Jetbridge Jesus” flights – where 50 people in wheelchairs board and not a single one of them needs wheelchair assistance when they arrive, since a miracle occurred and they can all walk fine on arrival – is most common on Southwest Airlines because it doesn’t just mean assistance through the airport, it also means a better seat on board. So when we see a large lineup of wheelchairs, it’s more likely to be for a Southwest Airlines flight than for another carrier.

Southwest could solve this by asking those who are able not to take aisle seats, because someone with mobility issues won’t want to have to get up to let people into the window or middle seats, and also not to take the first several rows of the aircraft. In other words, maybe they can board early but not take the best seats?

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’m sorry, but if you need a wheelchair to get on, you damn well better need one to get off.”

    With regard to the above quote, I think it’s better if such people can manage to get off the plane on arrival without needing wheelchair assistance even if they used to it get on the flight. It means that wheelchair assistance is more and more quickly available to others who may need it. It also means such persons may still have a better quality of life ahead than people who need wheelchair assistance more than them.

    If some are healthy people using wheelchair assistance for no reason other than to cut lines and be sped through the airport, that’s on them and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to make the service more restrictive for most others needing it.

  2. Let them pay $26.00 for the use of the chair and see how many people will be sitting in them

  3. There is a very simple solution for this issue, which is driving customers crazy, and I’m amazed SW management has not figured it out.
    Mandate that everyone that boards with a wheelchair will be required to deplane with a wheelchair.
    Problem solved.

  4. I like the idea of first on last off for wheelchair users. Problem is without assigned seating inflight has no way of identifying those who requested wheelchairs vs. those who have not. Until they have assigned seating or a way to track those in a wheelchair as they take their seats, this will continue to be a problem.

    As to those who request pre boarding assistance, airlines can identify a wheelchair user vs someone who needs preboarding assistance.easily. It’s just a matter of whether they want to solve the problem and invest in the technology to do so.

    Personally it’s pretty annoying to see those gaming the boarding process. When you see all those airport workers line up for wheelchair assistance while deplaning, it’s their time and effort being wasted in addition.

  5. I use a walker, I have 2 six inch rods in my back and more. I just let those morons on before me, I find their butting in line unacceptable,my walker is put in with luggage. I have a very limited time I am able to stand even with a walker once landed.My husband and I are the only ones waiting for my walker except for parents waiting for baby strollers. Delta, here we come!

  6. I always have paid for early boarding seating but I think I will start using my disability seating. Until some source of fees, for passengers with disabilities is enforce. I do have have a slight disability. Like they are using it to board but not to exit. What the use in upgrading your seating and extra fees when they have privileges.

  7. Interesting how the whole world has a registration and proof of disability process to issue disabled parking tags but the airlines are not allowed to ask for proof. It’s a crock of sh*t. If youre disabled you are providing proof of it everywhere else to secure your accommodations…even at work!! The airlines absolutely could ask for proof

  8. What if wheelchair users, who are first to board, are made to sit in the rear of the plane. That way when deplaning the pax who don’t require assistance can deplane first while those who need wheelchairs can then be deplaned more easily without holding up all the other passengers. May be impossible but just my opinion.

  9. Another solution is for all airlines to track those who need wheelchairs to board, and if they DON’T need one to deplane, put them on a no-fly list.

  10. I require a wheelchair to get from point a to point b. I am able to walk to my seat.
    I do not use a wheelchair for an
    excuse To early board.

  11. What my fellow readers might not be aware of is that often many SWA passengers AND preboarders (actually or phoney) spread out items across adjacent seats – and even entire rows – to save seats for other family members in the B and C boarding groups.

    Assigned seating is the only solution.

  12. I’m an elderly disabled person and I always travel with my handicap plaque. On one flight, it was 8 wheelchairs that walked at pre boarding. When I looked around, I was the only person that got left behind needing assistance. Yes, it’s not fair to the people that needs help the most.

  13. I live not far from McArthur airport.. I frequently go back and forth to Florida. I slowed down using Southwest Airlines. 2 reasons. First it’s getting to be a joke with all the fakers who get on with wheel chairs and then run off the plan..They should be seated in the rear of plane. First on last off. They can not complain. They won’t slow down exiting plane either. Some even stand on line with their bags in hand waiting to board early because they have health issues. Realy. I pay for early bird check in even though I have a handicap car sticker for multiple injuries I’ve had and a back that goes out periodically. Southwest uses the excuse that they are known for their boarding policy. In the new way the world works that’s a sad excuse. People are different today, it’s all about how they can beat the system. Sad isn’t it.. If you assign seats like the rest of the world you eliminate this problem overnight. The second reason I don’t fly with SW all the time is they are not cheap. Most flights have stop overs. That make you spend a good part of the day for a simple 2 to 3 hour flight. When the first leg of your flight is late you could miss the second half. This has happened to me already. It’s cheaper for me to take a private car service to JFK airport and fly Jetblue. I usually pay less than half the price to go to Fort Myers and a plane with TVs and in only around 3 hours.

  14. The Southwest Fix.
    Southwest has 3 problems with its system.
    1. PreBoarding Scammers
    2. Thru Flight seat switching
    3. Carryon Luggage.
    Southwest Can Keep its open seating going forward.
    But it needs to address the PreBoarding scam problem which deters people from buying Business Select and Anytime fares.

    First they can fix it by simply eliminating all thru flights in its entire system. This solves the problems of Thru passengers switching seats between flights taking away the prime seats from the next round of A1-15 and A list boarding.

    2nd either add 8-12 Big front seats like Spirit or AirTran used have on every flight.
    You can’t still have them first come first serve.
    Or move rows 1-3 up just an inch giving rows 1-4 the even more legs room feel to the cabin . Or just label the first 4 rows on every plane Business select seating. With 3 dedicated front over head bins.
    This way when it’s time to PreBoard the aircraft all the pre boarding passengers that haven’t bought a Business select
    Tickets which is usually 95% of them.
    Now can be legally told by the DOT/ADA rules they must sit row 5 and after excluding the over wing emergency exit rows. And all carry on luggage can go in the over head bins at Row 5
    And back .This will curb a lot of scammers.

    So after Pre boarding and no longer having thru passengers taking a prime seats.
    Business select boards A1-A15 they have the option to choose 1-4 or exit seats or anywhere else they so desired.
    Once they board then it’s A-list preferred boarding groups A16-A60.

    Now this group since BS already boarded they’re free to fill in 1-4 or exit rows if still available.
    Then you do Family Boarding ages 1-12.
    Then allow for Dead heading crew/Jumpseaters/commuting crew behind families.
    Again everyone can fill in 1-4 or exit seats if available and of age required for Exit seats.
    Then board group B1-60.
    When it comes to Group C1-60 this is the slowest part of the boarding process and where 95% of the pre Boarding scammers fall in. And on full flights regardless of the new bigger overhead bins people are forced to check carryon luggage .
    With a one two punch your can eliminate Everyone that buys cheap and if ask for pre boarding to beat WN at its own game. And it will speed up the end of the boarding process at the same time.

    How do you do this?
    If your change the carry on baggage policy while still keeping the 2 bags fly free checked bags policy.
    You simply change the Carryon baggage policy and requiring those that purchase the cheapest WAG fares by eliminating one carryon and one small personal Item to just allowed them 2 free checked bags and ONE small personal Item.

    This group is usually the one that fill in the
    Random open seats in the aircraft anyway.
    Now without them having to find over head bin space for a 2nd larger item they can quickly sit with the smaller personal item going underneath their own seat in front of them.
    This will speed up boarding and avoiding delays gate checking bags at the last minute.
    This will give WN Ops/Boarding agents the ability to finally police their baggage policy knowing that those in group C boarding in will only be allowed one small Item each.

    Once the learning curve passes it will set WN up to be able Market and up sale better boarding.
    If someone that bought cheap and would like to bring on an additional carry on item WN can Upsell them to WGA+ or offer it as a perk if you purchase Early Bird check in. (This new potential revenue stream would bring music to Wall Streets
    Ears yet not diluting the Southwest advantage they also love.)
    This is the cheapest way to reinvent the Southwest system without turn them into a legacy system.
    My self I want the Big Front seat option.
    It was a nice perk when available during the AirTran days.

  15. Any one of you whiners who are so ready to voice your contempt for the wheelchair passenger, please step right up and I will gladly trade places with you. If I could make it to the back of the plane, I would. I am luck to actually make it into the plane. I used to sit in the rear for many years, until I could not, because it seems roomier there.
    And guess what, folks, people boarding in wheelchairs have connections to make too. The biggest problem I have found in most airports is there are no available wheelchairs on arrival. I nearly missed a connection many times because of no chairs even after repeated calls by Southwest personnel no chairs arrived. And the wheelchair pushers don’t like to take passengers to a connecting flight because they get more tips taking 2 chairs to baggage claim as opposed to one going to a connection.
    Southwest appears to be the only airline showing any concern and respect to those of us who are mobility impaired. While trying to make a connecting flight in Atlanta on Delta, there were no chairs and again repeated calls went unanswered. I very painfully made it slowly to the connecting gate at the very end of their boarding and was told they had given away the seat I had paid for and stuck me in a middle seat which delayed their departure while I tried my best to make that maneuver since my legs no longer work well enough to easily do that. The seat I had paid for was a middle seat in the bulkhead.
    Too bad I will probably not live long enough for Karma to pay many of you a visit. And I know none of you are apparently bright enough to figure out that the scammers could care less what your opinions are.

  16. I fly on Southwest. I’m disabled and I need a wheelchair for my respiratory issues. I get on with a wheelchair and get off the same way. I fly a lot to see my grandchildren and family is important to me. When I was in good health I stood in line like everyone else and would wait till the end to board. The plane is going the same place as everyone is going and I hated to be in line with everyone breathing down my neck so impatient. Rushing out the plane they go to only go to baggage and wait. People should relax and think of others as we all got to fly together

  17. Dear Nope,

    From the bottom of my heart I thank you. There are more than enough entitled whiners on board already. By the way, have you ever noticed that when the plane pulls into the gate and there are say 10 wheelchairs boarded and maybe 2 wheelchairs waiting on arrival?
    Again, sincere thanks for not flying on Southwest.

  18. I have a very easy solution to this issue…. I use wheel chair assistance because I need it!!!! I get the worst stares because people look at me and say what could possibly be wrong with her…she looks healthy as an Ox, well they don’t know my story and I dress up and wear makeup to make myself feel better through my pain. If I could not sit in the first 7 rows of seats I would be more than happy to pay at a discounted rate to sit in one of those rows. Trust me if your pain is like mine you won’t haggle you would pay. My last flight someone else had booked it for me so they had me in seat 20… I asked the flight attendant if I could please be closer but she said it was a full flight. It was So painful just to get back their to my seat… so yesss I would pay for handicap seating, it’s worth it!!

  19. Forget about wheelchair misuse, A MORE IMPORTANT ISSUE IS PEOPLE WHO SAVE SEATS FOR THEIR FAMILY WHO HAVE NOT PAID TO BOARD EARLY! Southwest sound NOT allow this!

  20. Agree that the easy abuse to stop is saving seats. Southwest should just make it policy, no seat saving. They are ripping off customers who pay for early entry when they can’t get “open” seats because they are being saved.

  21. I see that there is a picture of elderly people in wheelchairs in your article and you seem to complain that such people can technically walk, so they shouldn’t be considered disabled.

    Sure, this is true. But I generally book my parents for wheelchair accommodation on flights because the walk time to gates is often long, and can be strenuous for them. How do you know the people in that photo are not in similar situations? You think they “don’t need wheelchairs because they can walk”?

    I understand that if you pay for early access it is unfair to see so many people go ahead of you. But please, blame that on the airline’s seating policy, instead of judging the people in the photo who may well be using it for the purpose I am thinking of, which I think is legitimately a disability.

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