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 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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Comments

  1. People do that all the time that don’t need it, it also gets them thru the big security lines quicker.
    all airlines have this problem but more so on Southwest……!

  2. “Not take the best seats” – The issue is that under Southwest’s pick any seat policy and you pay for a boarding position, you get screwed if there are a large # of preboards. On an assigned seat basis it really makes no difference. Southwest could fix this tomorrow by simply letting those with the A1-A15 boarding who paid the fare or upgrade for priority boarding get to board first, period. They get to choose the seat they want. Then the wheelchair brigade can board. If they want to be the first, they have an option to upgrade just like everyone else.

  3. Simple solution: If you preboard, you MUST sit in the last 5 rows of the airplane. Unless you literally have no legs or are paraplegic, you can make it the 50 feet to row 25. Enough with the bullshit. I’m betting though that this will lead to a reduction in wheelchairs anyway.

  4. People in a wheelchair should board last. What is wrong with that? Usually at the end of boarding, there is lots of inactivity with everyone seated. That could be the time for wheelchair passengers. It could also become a cure for their disease. They suddenly do not need wheelchairs and can run.

  5. Everybody just needs to get together in the boarding area and the whole plane pre-board. If questioned remind the gate agent they aren’t allowed to ask about disabilities. This starts happening maybe Southwest will do something about the abuse. The other suggestions are great. Make them sit in the last few rows or board last. Open seating is the main reason I avoid Southwest and only use them for direct flights.

  6. Southwest floated the idea of having family boarding first, but restricting families to the back of the plane.

    There was uproar and people thought it was a terrible idea. The thing is, it was a great idea. Get all the kids on board first, fewer kids up front so more room upfront for everyone else. You choose if you sit in front of a 3 year old that will kick your seat the entire time or next to a lap infant.

    People were just focused on the “first” aspect and everyone wants to be first, even if it is not in their best interest.

  7. @derek No, people in wheelchairs should not board last. A person who really needs a wheelchair may have a very awkward and/or humiliating transfer from the wheelchair to their airplane seat. That should not be done in front of all the passengers.

    AA also has this problem to less of a degree. The incoming flight for our outbound flight had requested seven wheelchairs based on the same number requested when they boarded. Only two of the seven wheelchairs were claimed when the flight arrived.

  8. While I am sure there is abuse that goes on, sometimes what may appear to be abuse may not be. Some people with legitimate mobility problems and/or cardiovascular troubles may use wheelchairs at airports as de facto walking aides with storage capability or need the wheelchair as a place to rest or rest against to minimize risk of an exacerbation of their health problems.

  9. Anyone that prepays to board first should be allowed to board first. To hell with all the fake wheelchair users. Yeah I said what I said.

  10. For those of us who have flown to India, this is a very common “issue” at DEL. It has nothing to do with unassigned seating, but rather a desire to board early and grab overhead luggage bins. An improbable number of passengers (I’ve seen > 30 on one flight) very often with voluminous carry-on luggage, bags, etc. are rolled to the gate in wheelchairs and as soon as boarding for those in wheelchairs is announced, they are rolled to the door of the gate, have their boarding passes checked, and then literally jump out of the wheelchair grabbing their carry-on luggage and run to plane down the Jetway.

    This abuse of pre-boarding, designed for those with true mobility issues, is scandalous!

  11. I have bad lungs and am 72 years old. They work at 35%. I have documentation as well as my auto handicapped sticker. I bring them always to the airport. I don’t need a wheel chair (unless the walk between gates on connecting flights is excessive or going through customs. But, for sure, there is fraud in the wheel chair system. I also have SW credit cards where we get upgraded boarding 4 times and sometimes I have paid for that as well, when I have a quick connection. Southwest should do something for people to show some type of proof. I always have it with me.

  12. The worst part of this is actually that people who really need the wheelchairs end up waiting much longer to get assistance if people abuse it. It’s hard enough to get assistance with the lack of staffing. As someone who needs a chair for long walks, I try to give the benefit of the doubt, but when I have to wait an hour to get a chair and someone to push it because there’s no staff available, it’s really really frustrating. Not to mention that people with invisible disabilities now have to deal with all the shitty looks from people who now think they’re faking it. It’s hard enough to be disabled without more bullshit on top of it.

  13. Dov,

    I have flown into DEL from abroad hundreds of times, and not a single flight of mine arriving into DEL has ever had anywhere close to 30 wheelchair requests. Even 20 seemed to push the limits. Maybe you came in on a flight full of geriatric patients arriving for or from a special event.

    Unfortunately, the combination of pollution, sedentary daily lifestyles and problematic dietary intake in India has bad health consequences that increase the need for wheelchair use even if not always apparent to all on why they need a wheelchair.

  14. This is why I no longer pay extra fees on Southwest. All the seats are the same. I use a back pack as a carry on that fits under the seat and book non-stop flights.

  15. @GUWonder

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. The situation I noticed was on several flights OUT of DEL to Europe or Canada. The persons in question were not geriatric cases. Having done a number of “airport runs” for friends with conditions requiring wheelchair assistance, I am very aware of the fact that just by looks alone, one cannot necessarily discern whether someone really needs a wheelchair or any other assistance including preboarding without a wheelchair (bad knees, etc.).

    In the cases I cited, the number of these wheelchairs and the energy of the passengers in them as they jumped out and literally ran to the plane raised the attention of many of us at the gate. Very few of these same passengers seemed to have any issues at the destination airport.

  16. There are 2 scenarios:

    a) If you board with a wheelchair, you wait until everyone else has deplaned before you can leave. If you leave on your feet, next time you request a wheelchair early boarding, SWA will point out you have to wait for. your wheelchair when you deplane, do you really need a wheelchair?

    b) To get a handicap placard by your DMW, you must submit a doctor’s form and it might have a time limit (if you break an ankle, it’s only good for 6 months) Same here. They keep track of your PreCheck/Clear # so why not have a reg process for wheelchair boarding. If you need it like my mom, it’s not a big deal to submit and form + doctor’s note.

  17. TPA based DL Diamond who buys business/first when travelling with my wife in wheelchair (spina bifida) or my 80 year old parents with new hips and knees, I see this all the time. We are first on, last off except twice – LH first and SIN suites stopped disembark and let us go as soon as her chair arrived at the jetway. The suggestion that preboards who don’t need to be carried to their seat sit in back 5-10 rows makes a lot of sense to me.

  18. Let those who need “extra time” board last…and while they’re at it, those with kids who abuse the system can board last as well. Stop the foolishness once and for all.

  19. Airlines are covered by the Air Carrier Access Act vs the ADA.

    It specifies that unless there are preassigned seats, they must allow those requesting to do so boarding first to self select the seat that best is compatible with their disability, except where it contradicts safety regulations (exit row, or say putting an immobile 450 lb person in an aisle where they prevent egress of people not in their party sat at the window).

    Airlines don’t have to provide for free a seat that may charge a premium. So the only real way around the ACAA requirement would be if WN said you MUST have a Business Select ticket or upgraded boarding to sit in certain seats. But that locks those pax into seats they may not prefer. And then those seats either stay unsold or empty if not enough fare paying folks to fill them, or back to square one.

  20. This happens ALOT of International flights too. Anytime people can cut in front at customs/border patrol: they are going to cheat. The airlines and airports need to co-ordinate on this and stop the malingering and feining that happens every single day. I’ve been on numerous flights from India, Thailand, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, & Spain where there were little or none in wheelchairs boarding. Then at DFW/PHL/CLT there are 2 dozen wheelchair operators standing in line on the jet bridge waiting for these people that were just doing cartwheels on the plane to get am extra ice cream sundae. Now they can’t walk 100 yards and stand for 10 minutes??? Gimme a break! Liars.

  21. Helped a guy find a wheelchair coming off a DL flight. Needed the help and had no assistance. Thats how I met Lee Elder. Just relax and go somewhere across the country in 2 hrs.

  22. The pre-boarding of people in wheelchairs isn’t the problem. They are allowed to bring other people with them. I’ve seen a spouse and 2 grown sons accompany a person in a wheelchair. The other issue is paying for early bird boarding to find someone saving a row if seats for family members that didn’t pay for early bird boarding. I recommend “Seating Zones” based on your Boarding Number, you are assigned a Zone. You get “open seating” in your Zone.

  23. Easy solution, as usual. You pay for your seat or choose one based on the ticket you purchased. It doesn’t matter whether you’re “handicapped”, or not. I fail to see why others should be inconvenienced by someone else’s limitations. Free and voluntary markets are the only fair system needed to correct all injustice.

  24. >>No, people in wheelchairs should not board last. A person who really needs a wheelchair may have a very awkward and/or humiliating transfer from the wheelchair to their airplane seat. That should not be done in front of all the passengers.

    No one with any dignity is flying Southwest in the first place, so who cares about humiliating them?

  25. I have been using wheelchair services (legitimately) in airports for 15+ years, both nationally and internationally. Wheelchair services are provided by airports, not airlines. The service must be reserved in advance. I have often been an early border, though only for a reserved seat. De-planing can be a nightmare, especially at San Francisco. Attendants are scarce. Frequently one attendant is provided for three people (and three wheelchairs). We are the last people off the plane and the last people at passport control. Each attendant moves one chair for 25 yards or so, goes back for the second, then back for the third By the time we make it to baggage claim, the bags have sometimes been locked up for the night and we have to file claims for them. To avoid this, I have occasionally put my hand luggage in the wheelchair to snag my bag, if I’ve seen it on a conveyor belt. I otherwise fail to see the kind of behavior described here on United or American or Alaska. It is generally true, though, that airport wheelchair services could be better managed and better coordinated.

  26. @H2oman

    Had the exact same thought. If there is no criteria for what constitutes a disability and no process for verification why not have the entire flight line up for pre-boarding. Maybe not on every flight, because I think we can all respect that some people truly need the extra time.

    But SWA has no motivation to address the issue unless there is some upheaval. One or two flights per day would be enough to force a policy shift.

  27. My younger son uses a wheelchair. He can’t walk not one step but he can get around on his knees. I don’t see any difference whether we board first or last. The transferring from an aisle chair into his seat wouldn’t be an issue for us. When we get off the planes we are last. There is a new seat in the works. It is being tested now. If a wheelchair is on board it folds up and the wheelchair user rolls into the space. You stay in your wheelchair for the whole flight. If no wheelchairs are on board the airline doesn’t lose any money. The seat stays as it is and a non-handicapped person can use it.

  28. As someone generally entitled to early boarding but who often boards close to the end anyway, I prefer that those using wheelchair assistance are boarded early. Their boarding early means that the wheelchairs/assistants are freed up faster for others’ use and that the aisles during boarding don’t get clogged ahead of me as much.

  29. I didn’t read all the comments, but I think an easy solution would be to tell them that they MUST wait until all passengers are off the airplane before they can deplane!
    First on last off!

  30. As a person with a visual impairment, these comments leave me feeling heartbroken and less than human. Although, I am not completely blind, my corneas are cone-shaped, so I see the world distorted, like a kaleidoscope or funhouse mirror, and I use a white stick to keep me grounded on the tilty floors and so I don’t walk into people or things. I also see double and triple, so airport crowds are exhausting for me. Because of this, I always note on my ticket that I am visually impaired and will need assistance through the airport. I can walk just fine, but a wheelchair is the airlines preferred a way of assisting those with visual impairments get through the airport safely and sanely. Once at the gate, I no longer need the chair and can use my white stick to help me board and get to my seat. Preboarding is such a blessing to me because I can take my time, not be jostled about and have my white stick kicked out from under me. I always sit toward the front of the plane because there is no pre-disembarking and again, I don’t want to try to manage while being jostled when I leave. I get some odd looks once on the plane because I no longer use my white stick to move around the cabin because I can touch the back of seats to guide me to the bathroom and, with my special glasses and big font, I can read. I can feel the resentment from folks as we are seeing here in the comments, who might make the assumption that I’m some great actor scamming them out their rights to expediency and comfort.
    What you people need to know is that living with a disability makes every single thing more difficult every single moment of every single day, and we are grateful for anything that can lessen that burden for a minute, an hour or a flight. To suggest that we should be herded, like some kind of undesirables or lesser humans, to the back of the plane is painful to read and brings to mind a time when “get to the back of the bus” was the requirement for other groups seen as less than human.
    I don’t have the answer for how to stop people from scamming, but I know that it does not include treating everyone with a disability as some kind of lesser being, not worthy of any “perks.” When you see that group of people with wheelchairs, the answer might be for you all to pause a moment and feel grateful that you do not have a disability nor a heart wicked enough to use it as a scam. With gratitude and mercy in your hearts, you might find your flight, indeed your life, a much more pleasant experience.

  31. The only reason for doing choose-your-own-seat is that people rush to sit down and it speeds the boarding process. If the whole thing is defeated by the slowdowns involved in wheeling 30% of the passengers down the jetway then they will just go to the same seating and boarding systems that other airlines use, and magically people will be healed.

  32. Disabled people need to site in front row or in first rows as it’s easier to get to the rest room.
    Without the walker or wheelchair. A disabled person needs to hold on to the seat backs to get thete; the shorter the walk the better.
    If fakers take the spots it’s quite odious and dishonorable.

  33. These same sort of people just work the system. Much of this inconveniences those who really do need assistance.
    I was at a Walmart store yesterday and I noticed this lady and her family walking around this busy store with their “pet” French poodle (you know one of the big ones) with a “Service Animal” vest on it. I rolled my eyes but whatever. Of course, they proceed to get in my way at every turn but I digress. Maybe she has some “other” mental health issue since she wasn’t blind or whatever. Fun times so I let it go. After I left Walmart I went to a nearby farm supply store. Guess who shows up. Yep, it’s the family with the “disabled” lady and her pet dog. I overhear one of the kids asking her if they need to put the vest on the dog and she says no they don’t “need it in that store since they don’t mind if people bring their dog with them”. They proceed to buy it dog toys and whatnot. My guess is these same, able-bodied folks parked in a handicapped parking space as well.
    My point is that at some time in the future the airlines will start asking for proof of disability pior to arriving at the airport and this will be a burden on those with true disabilities. Being old or selfish shouldn’t require a wheelchair.

  34. Southwest could BETTER solve it by choosing the rows for these passengers (make it all of the front rows and every seat in those rows) then enforcing upon landing that said rows will get off last ensuring that assistance will be available from the ground and flight crews. Being forced to get off last is enough of a dissuasion to limit this.

  35. Sounds like human selfishness has ruled once again. And Southwest can easily fix this by bringing in “seat assignment” like every one else.

  36. On a recent Southwest flight a woman in a wheelchair got up prior to boarding and walked about a 100 feet to a food stand and bought food and drinks which she then distributed to several waiting crew members. She then sat back down and boarded early. This kind of obvious abuse is common on the airline of Lourdes. It is an insult to those who legitimately need wheelchairs and extra help. Suggestions to limit seating areas and having wheelchair passengers board later in the process should be explored. Many of us who fly Southwest are tired of seeing a dozen or more wheelchair passengers board early when typically on an airline with assigned seats one or two such passengers is more common.

  37. The disability pre board situation is rife with abuse due to existing ADA laws.. As you pointed out, the to/from Puerto Rico routes are insanity at the gates. Have these people no shame? I would like someone to explain why the Puerto Rican abuse is magnified by a factor double or triple to other locations and SWA destinations. It is appalling and by far, the most egregious example throughout the SWA system. I have seen it first hand. And yes, virtually none of the pre boards use wheelchairs when deplaning. Hawaii is not the same, and it is a vacation island destination. I don’t get the Puerto Rican high level of abuse. What exactly is causing Puerto Rico to be the epicenter of disability abuse?

  38. Wow. Just. Wow.

    I fly SWA exclusively and I have literally never seen this. 50 wheelchairs? More like 5, tops.

    And when I paid for priority boarding, didn’t care. The extra was like $30. I was aiming for not being a c or a high number B- so I paid for A4… that I was really the 15th person on the plane (after a few young families too), still- didn’t care. Either way, I didn’t get a middle seat and I was content.

    It’s interesting to see all of the outraged “unfair” comments. Really, it is. I suspect that at least a portion of those that are downright outraged over such a thing are of a class that have plenty of unfair privileges of their own, that are happy to shrug those off and say “life isn’t fair, get over it” when such privilege is called out.

    When situations are reversed we are quick to defend? But the first to stand up indignantly when someone has something we don’t- and to accuse them of lying to get it.

    So someone boards a plane by lying about needing wheelchair. Life isn’t fair, grow up and get over it.

    Jeez. A plane is involved and we all devolve into 5-year-olds? If you want assigned seating, simple: don’t fly southwest. You are all aware of the open seating and of the pre board policies. Don’t like them, silently go elsewhere. I’m say silently because really, hearing the whining is exhausting. No one cares that you needed to wait 10 extra minutes to board the plane.

  39. One easy solution is if you use a wheelchair to get on, you are last off. If you need the extra time to board then you should need the extra time to de-plane. Making this mandatory eliminates the benefit of sitting up front, and would be self-policing. The people misusing this benefit will give it up when they cannot have their cake and eat it too.

  40. Oh, yeah. No carry-on either. Don’t charge them for their luggage but do not allow any carry-on luggage for passengers who require assistance. This will also reduce the use of pre-boarding.

  41. In FLL, saw an elderly woman run to the gate with a cane tucked under her arm so that she could pre-board on my WN flight.
    Granny had the legs of a marathon runner.

  42. I get it, I have seen wheelchair abuse on southwest for years.

    But…

    I am handicapped and I can only walk a very short distance. I need a wheelchair to the door of the plane, and from the door of the plane. I also need to sit in the front couple of rows because I can’t walk. After the plane lands, I wait until everyone else is off the plane before I get off and get in the wheelchair.

    I think the best solution to this problem is that Southwest should require a doctor’s note listing the persons restrictions. I actually have one of these in case I need it. Another option is to require that they have a handicap placard with them. This would help, but not eliminate the problem completely.

    For domestic flights, I fly Southwest exclusively because of the way they board. When flying internationally, I fly first class so I can avoid trying to get to a seat father back. (this kills me financially, so I fly internationally very rarely.)

    Just try to remember that not everyone you see in a wheelchair is a cheater.

  43. It is actually worse than you think. The union that represents Southwest and United gate agents, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, instructs its union staff that fly Southwest and United Airlines to ask for pre-boarding because of a disability so they can get a better seat on Southwest and more access to overhead bins on United. On the rare occasion a gate agent may question them they were instructed by the IAM chief of staff Edison Fraser to say they have a peanut allergy and need to preboard to clean their seat and tray table. Most union staff refuse to do this, but it is a practice that the IAM leadership endorses and uses for themselves and their families, even when they are flying in first class on United. They are already flying on free confirmed tickets provided by the airline, but they still must game the system to board sooner. It is disgusting.

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