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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. Unfortunately for Southwest and most of its passengers, the US law for accessibility does not permit the airline to restrict which seats these passengers take (other than it also being illegal for them to be in the exit rows). So when you write that maybe Southwest could have them not take the best seats – that would be illegal.

    Sure, SWA could “ask,” but good luck with that.

  2. SWA should give the following a try: Each route should have one designated wheelchair flight, if a wheelchair passenger wants to take a different flight they would have to pay a service fee. Higher points should be given to wheelchair and non-wheelchair passengers for booking this flight. Recommend using the MCO-SJU route as a trial.

  3. Start requiring a doctor’s note to secure a “need to pre-board” pass the passenger can carry at all times. Similar to the handicapped tag for cars. Otherwise, get in line with the rest of us.

  4. Simple solution, pax brings their own chair. Only one person may come with pax down the jetway to attend to their needs, and not the entire family. The chair is tagged and stowed. When the flt lands, the chair is brought to the jet door where pax claims it. I guarantee if this policy was in place, only one to two people will bring their own chair, and the rest of the a-holes will get to the back of the line where they belong!

  5. I flew southwest once after newly breaking my arm and had a huge cast . I walked to gate but asked to pre board and they said no , even though my new cast meant it was hard to navigate into seat.

  6. With “handicapped” passengers scattered across the plane, it is impossible to make certain that they are only permitted to be last off. It’s also apparently against US law to limit which seats they can choose, so that’s not the solution either.

    One idea might be to require “handicapped” folks to gate check carry-on luggage except for a personal item and then make certain that that specific gate checked luggage is delivered to the jetway only after all other passengers are off.

  7. IMMEDIATELY only allow the passenger to board with only ONE family member.

    Enough of using this game to board with 15 family members.

  8. As per usual, the ableds are focusing on the wrong issue and/or are willfully ignorant of how disabilities actually work. I was born visually impaired. I get assistance in airports because navigating a new space, especially one with as much sensory input as airports usually have, is difficult to say the least. The TSA just makes it worse by communicating in grunts and vague hand gestures instead of words. I don’t need a wheelchair, and prefer to walk as I will soon be tied down to an uncomfortable chair and unable to move for a solid couple of hours. I do need someone to help me navigate a fast moving space with confusing directional signage. I need someone to let me know when TSA is ready for me and for TSA to understand that I have difficulty seeing. It would also be nice if people would notice me clinging to the arm of the assistance provider and maybe not run into me, but apparently that is too much to ask. I have a masters in human factors and use very precise language when I pre-book assistance. Not only are my notes not passed on to the flight crew, they are ignored by the assistance providers. My personal favorite is that they meet you on the jet bridge with a tiny sign with your name on it. I cannot see said sign and have ask every assistance person if they are for me. This is after I’ve said that I am visually impaired! Oh, and to the bozo who said we should have to bring our disability hang tags. Um, dude, I can’t even drive! Before you start talking about “miracle” cures, you should know that not all disabled people need a wheelchair!

  9. Let’s make it simpler. They can be boarded AFTER their group has finished boarding. I can assure you it will lead to fantastic recuperation.

  10. A simple solution, and potential revenue-enhancer, for wheelchair mis-use: Charge a nominal deposit, say, $25 or $50, for reserving a wheelchair. To get the deposit refunded, you have to return your boarding pass to an airline employee, after all other passengers have deplaned, as you get into your wheelchair.

  11. Add me to the crowd that says simplistic solutions won’t work.

    Anyone requesting wheelchair assistance can walk–those who can’t walk will already have their own chairs! Thus it comes down to how far and how fast they can walk. And for many standing in line is as much of an issue as walking. Not to mention those with vision impairments that need navigation assistance, not mobility assistance–but the system can’t provide that other than by wheelchair.

    Furthermore, airports tend to involve more walking than many people are used to doing–they might fare fine in day-to-day life and have no need of a handicap placard, yet an airport could be too much.

  12. Find board with your wheel chair but then wait to be last off the plane. I have sat in the last row on planes and I am last to get off almost with the FA’s and Flight Crew and I pass more empty wheelchairs on the Jetbridge then I pass passengers still sitting in their seats.
    They board the plane in their wheelchair rolling down the jetbridge and then walk to their seat, don’t use an aisle seat.
    The plane lands and they are the first to stand up and grab their bag from the overhead before L1 is even disarmed and walk off past all the wheelchairs waiting on the jetbridge.
    How is this selective assistance only needed during boarding?

  13. Definitely a problem, one person may be disabled, but they have five flight companions with them. Should at least limit to one companion. Definitely need to fix the problem. I fly SW because of luggage fees, but would much rather fly were I know which seat I have. I will be checking other airlines in future.

  14. My wife and I are both in our 80s, and have state issued disability.
    license plates and signs. We use the wheelchairs, as we can’t walk long distances.
    How ever we always check our luggage, so not to take up overhead space, for those boarding after us.

  15. It happens to be very hard to find wheelchairs st the airport. We need 2 for the 2 of us 1/2 the time I have to search high and low while he sirs in the cB being pushed to go by the cops.
    I who also need one. Have to use his walker to get to the gate with difficulty.
    If as you’re all saying,people who don’t need a wheelchair are ” hogging ” from the ones who do,it’s a terrible comment on today’s society.

  16. It’s unfortunate that some people spoil things. I can’t stand for more than 5 minutes & walking through an airport is impossible. I really don’t care when I get on or off a plane. I just need a wheelchair available when I do.

  17. How about…
    > impose a lifetime ban on any passenger who claims to need wheelchair preboarding but walks right off upon arrival.
    > clearly warn about this and explicitly require the passenger to agree to it when requesting wheelchair pre boarding.

  18. This is another sign of times . I am disabled vet in wheelchair ( paralyzed) .and in last ten months hacet noticed an amazing increase in wheelchair ( not personal) in line at TSA . Going to bet they found out how much faster they can get through security! SAD !
    If you don’t have an everyday chair ( personal) no pre boarding that simple .As noted anazy how many are miraculously cured during flight and no longer need chair to get off . Another solution mentioned .you board with wheelchair assistance you get off last ! I get off last just so my chair won’t get tangled up with able bodies passengers.

  19. Just save the last 10 rows of the aircraft for those passengers. Theoretically, those seats are the safest, so that’s a bonus. Additionally, while deplaning, they’ll be able to take time.
    Putting the slowest traveller in the front of anything doesn’t make sense.

    That’s like reserving the front spot for people who drive the slowest.

  20. I have a heart and lung condition and yes I fly southwest to love field airport in texas from Las Vegas, I did try walking to my terminal once and collapsed a very nice lady helped me up and got the airlines to get me a wheelchair so I do have a handicap place card I worked as a nurse helping others for 25 yrs and took ill the last 2 yrs I am not trying to take cuts or any other bs line as I am not able to walk more then 100ft with out being out of breath. I currently use oxygen and yes I know I see the fakers, believe me wait till a family member or themselves really need a wheelchair it’s hell to be disabled.

  21. This idea of sending wheelchair users to the way back of the flying bus is a lousy one. It would slow down boarding and also increase the chances of such flyers to miss connecting flights. Have a heart, for it’s more of a hassle for the mobility-challenged to misconnect than it is for the typical person who happens to be traveling on OPM at times.

  22. Why even bother with a wheelchair? Just request a medical pre-board and walk on at the same time as wheelchair passengers. HIPPA prevents an airline from asking why you need it and they’re forced to hand it out. If they question you, you end up with a healthy paycheck from the lawsuit!

  23. I’m 45 and have had blood clots in both legs. I’ve had to request wheelchair assistance because I literally could not walk through the airports to make my flights. I was using a knee scooter which I checked at the ticket counter. Looking at me you’d think I was abusing the system but you can’t judge people for being in a wheelchair according to how you think they should look and behave. Some people have a longer walk at one airport than another. Some people have a connection one gate over and may not need it. Yes unfortunately there will always be someone who abuses any system. For those who complain the most, there are other airlines to choose from where you can get assigned seats. The fares are lower than most other airlines due to their open seating policy. You can’t come for the low fares because of that policy and then complain about that policy and issues related to that policy.

  24. Most of these comments lack empathy for those who need a wheelchair to navigate the airports. The solutions being proposed will make it worse for those who need wheelchair assistance. Those with impaired mobility deserve seats closer to the front, more so than elite Passengers or HNW Passengers. The best you can do is to have Passengers certify that they need a wheelchair, and it should be on a first on last out basis (FILO). For the record, I do not need a wheelchair, but frequently travel with an 86 year old Passenger who looks healthy but needs a wheelchair. Yet we are subjected to quizzical stares from other passengers with the mindset of your commenters.

  25. Some people with invisible disabilities like severe social anxiety disorder or PTSD can also benefit from pre boarding, especially in situations where large groups of others compete for needed scarce resources like window seats or bin space (scarce resources, like those created by unassigned seating policies)

  26. I have thirty six titanium screws placed in the front of my neck, and down the lumber.
    I cannot have anyone pushing or shoving me when I’m seated in my seat.
    I have been disabled since 1997 and had to terminate my job due to my accidents.
    Just because I don’t look disabled doesn’t mean I’m, not.
    I can’t even pick up anything that weighs more than three pounds.
    So when boarding I need to pre board.
    I bring my disability letter that comes with my placard and a note from my surgeon at all times.
    I would trade seating in the last row of any plane to not be in pain twenty four seven.
    Please show empathy and not judge us just because we can walk and look fine.
    Many of us live in constant pain.
    I appreciate getting on board early as it allows me to take my pain pills and settle in since It takes a while to do so.
    Thank you Southwest Airlines for treating me with dignity.

  27. For all of you disabled/wheelchair user haters, I have severe claustrophobia and PTSD, but need to travel for work fairly often. I board first because I need to get a seat that is around the least amount of people and not get stuck meandering within a crowd of people to get into the plane. If I could reserve a bulkhead aisle seat on SWA, I would. Be grateful you don’t have an issue that is limiting or debilitating. Also, stop pretending you know what someone is doing. Trust me, if it’s not your life or the life of a loved one, you have no clue. I DO AGREE, however, that 15 family members don’t need to help one person and I think it’s ridiculous they allow that many people on early for that reason. But, and I know everyone who’s ever flown SWA has encountered the priority boarding seat savers – where one person in a group pays to board early then saves good seats for their entire group of which none have paid for the privilege of boarding early. Talk about gaming a system.

  28. I just flew Southwest to Fort Myers, FL. 11/30. We had about 10 wheelchair preboards. I saw all but one exit on their own with no chair needed. In Fort Myers there were about 20 wheelchair preboards waiting. If Southwest says they can’t change how they are doing this, then they aren’t interested and unwilling in improving customer service for all flyers.

  29. I gladly pay more to fly with another’s airline…
    Although I was in Atlanta last week and one of the departing flights to India had all wheelchairs there had to be 100 of them lined up…
    Cheap and lazy is the people’s way….

  30. Obviously this persists because SW has calculated that cracking down on Miracle Flights is worth more trouble than the disgruntled pax who pay for priority. I’m sure at some point, priority boarding will be sufficiently monetized that those paying up will start to balk. At which point, there are some relatively easy (and legal) solutions. There could be some sort of annual certification: the goal would be something relatively easy for those with a genuine disability, but more difficult than ticking a box when buying the ticket. Another idea would be to require anything larger than a personal item or medical device to be checked. Again, those with mobility issues are likely already checking in; those looking for early boarding may be put off by the wait on the back-end.

  31. Maybe Southwest Airlines should charge more for tickets but have a “I will wait” rebate available. This would be available for all passengers. You want a cheaper ticket, agree to wait until the first 30 passengers have boarded or the first 60 have boarded or the first 90 have boarded, etc. The more people who have boarded before, the greater the rebate. Rebates run out for each group when that group is fully subscribed. If you are too slow to physically get in the proper group, that is on you. I know from JetBlue that having a much lower ticket price in coach (Blue Basic) is a powerful incentive to board last, especially because a carry-on bag is not allowed at that price.

  32. What I have observed on so many SW flights is 3/4 of the “wheelchair” passengers do not use the wheelchairs at their destination. Only to get onto the plane. I’m sorry, but if you need a wheelchair to get on, you damn well better need one to get off.

  33. So I am a very frequent flyer of Southwest. I have hit Companion Pass, A and A Premier this year.

    I have seen the Pre-Boarding people completely take advantage of the system and have voiced my concern multiple times. After over 20 people on my last flight needed assistance boarding, and these individuals didn’t get boarded until we were supposed to be in the air, I called Southwest to understand what qualifies someone as Pre-Board. According to Federal Regulations(not Southwest) an individual has to answer YES to a few questions to become Pre-Board. Questions are effectively, “Do you need assistance boarding the flight”. There are no checks and balances, so anyone can say yes and get a Pre-Board.

    I would like to say and agree that not all disabilities are visible. I think a few tweaks could be made to their boarding process to expedite and mitigate the issue though.

    What I have suggested to Southwest is that the individuals that are Pre-Board must sit in the back of the plane as the trade off. Typically Pre-Boarders (clearly) take the the front of the plane and Exit row seats, considered the “best seats”. Individuals that actually need help are taking significantly longer to get settled, which causes a longer boarding/exiting process. If the Pre-Boarders, who need more time are escorted to the rear of the plane, they can have more time to get settled in, while A1-60 are being seated.

    I feel that this would not only expedite the boarding and exit process, but dishonest individuals who claim Pre-Board to get a seat in Exit or close to the front would not have that advantage anymore.

    I asked a Southwest Customer Service agent….why wouldn’t everyone claim Pre-Board? She said there really isn’t anything stopping everyone else from doing the same. She also said that their employees discuss this topic regularly in their Town Hall meetings. Hopefully they can make a change.

  34. Best decision I made was to stop flying Southwest after the pandemic. This issue along with the seat savers was getting ridiculous back then and add in Southwest’s attitude during the pandemic, it became an airline to avoid at all costs.

  35. Solution: If you pre-board, you de-plane after everyone else. Not simple for flight attendants to track, but I would bet it would eliminate much of the unscrupulous mob.

  36. @Valorie Reed:
    > What I have observed on so many SW flights is 3/4 of the “wheelchair” passengers do not use the wheelchairs at their destination. Only to get onto the plane. I’m sorry, but if you need a wheelchair to get on, you damn well better need one to get off.

    Except that’s not the case. I’ve seen my MIL use a wheelchair to board but walk off. When she could rest as needed and didn’t have to stand in line she could handle it. When she had to be at the gate by X that was a problem and she couldn’t handle standing in line. She also couldn’t walk without a bit of assistance–and assistance is not permitted at the metal detectors (this was before the imaging scanners–she would not have been able to assume the position.)

    Everyone has limits, the only question is how far they can go.

    @Cindy Hammack:
    > I DO AGREE, however, that 15 family members don’t need to help one person and I think it’s ridiculous they allow that many people on early for that reason.

    Yup, that should be changed. Pre-board should only include those actually involved in assisting the passenger, not their whole party. (I won’t limit it to one person because I can easily see two parents sharing the load of caring for a disabled child.)

    @Andy:
    > At which point, there are some relatively easy (and legal) solutions. There could be some sort of annual certification: the goal would be something relatively easy for those with a genuine disability, but more difficult than ticking a box when buying the ticket.

    And what about situations where it’s not a permanent situation? My wife took one flight in a wheelchair because of an injury before the flight. Yes, she had talked to a doctor (you’re going to be hurting for a bit, but flying home isn’t going to aggravate anything) but even if she had a letter there would have been a language problem for the second leg of the flight.

  37. I am only 65 years old and look like I don’t need a wheel chair, therefore, must be one of the scammers.I can walk, usually without a limp. Sometimes I have to walk off of the airplane without a wheelchair because none are available. I then have to wait at the gate for a wheelchair.

    I can walk, but not very fast and not very long. Not all disabilities are obvious.

    I agree that it is likely that some people who don’t need them are.using wheel chairs just to get pre boarding.

    The solutions I have read here to stop wheelchair abuse would also make it more difficult for those with real disabilities. I could walk to the back of the airplane, but many disable people could not make it to the back without help and difficulty. It would slow down the boarding process.

    That is just one of the suggestions .
    Any solution should not make more difficult for those who really need wheelchairs and pre boarding.

  38. I haven’t read all the comments so this might have been said before or there may be some obvious problem with what I am suggesting that I haven’t thought of.
    Why not just have handicapped claimants board when they are supposed to. You buy a low fare ticket and end up with C17. You put your wheelchair in line between C16 and C18. You get to board with a wheelchair and assistance which is what you are asking for. I guess it would slow down the boarding process, maybe. But how much? And my guess is that this would sort of self-correct the problem of people trying to jump the line by claiming to be handicapped. In other words why does disability necessarily equal “Pre Board?”

  39. My Legs were crushed in a near fatal car accident. Over a year in a chair, constant pain, and 18 surgeries later, getting on plane early and handicap parking are my tiny little “treats.” The wheelchairs issue is a crazy one for a variety reasons, and yes, since COVID i noticed tons of them.

    If airport is large I request a chair, if not, I prefer to walk. After sitting in a cramped seat on a plane, I need to warm them up and unlock them.I commend SW staff as they always offer me one when I deplane (my disability is obvious),

    I finally realized the importance boarding early for a truly disable person. I was the last passenger on board (due to bad connection) and my crutch literally bumped the head of everyone on the plane as I tried to find that last seat available.

    All of this seems so unnecessary. why does SW do this? I often travel to the PNW on Alaska Airlines. They have assigned seats. I still board early, and get my usual seat in back near restrooms,Cause I am last to disembark. I don’t like hordes of people rushing by me as as I gimp up the tunnel. Their entire boarding process is completely different. Boarding AA is civilized, quiet, and and pleasant. On SW, I can almost feel the heightened stress of passengers desperately grabbing seats and often going back against the crowds for the perfect seat they just passed. I think assigned seats take less time. SO WHY?

  40. Problem is not the 1 disabled person, they usually force the airline or make a scene if they don’t let their son daughter and their 2 grandkids board with them. So instead of 1 preboard, you have 4 or 5 people. Thats the excessive part.

  41. I’m a disabled veteran and I have a 100% disability. I’m embarrassed to see how many people use pre board as an excuse to get the whole family on board at the expense of those who really need it. I have associated paperwork that says that I have a disability. I have never been asked to provide any documentation but I will carry it with me to cut the crap. I think that Sowthwest should require some sort of special permit to allow people who need preboard to have it.

  42. My complaint regarding SWA in addition to the wheelchair situation is
    what I consider the mistreatment of the “A” group passengers. They are sitting
    comfortably in the waiting area when the agent asks them to get up and stand
    in their numerical positions and then begin the wheelchair loading process
    Often these folks who have paid extra for business or early boarding are left
    standing for up to half an hour while all the miracle folks etc. board.
    Why can’t they just wait for the last wheelchair to begin boarding before making
    all the “A”‘s stand up. If I happen to be an “A”, I will just wait in my chair until it makes
    sense to line up.

  43. This would all be solved by seat choice only when booking the flight as the other carriers do. I wouldn’t fly Southwest due to this fiasco.

  44. All of you who are attacking unscrupulous wheelchair users and have ideas for those who are truly handicapped….my husband cannot walk without the wheelchair and in the plane he has to hold on tight to the other seats. He needs to sit if possible in the front as the walk all the way yo the back is very rough.
    He needs to have more leg room and be near a bathroom.
    When the fakers take the wheelchairs and attendants it makes it terribly stressful us as there is no place to wait for a chair.

    I don’t know the answer to root out the fakers but it’s not to have handicapped people go to the back.
    It’s very hard to travel as a handicapped person. Have a little compassion.

    Perhaps a note from the doctor should be required for ore boarding

  45. As an (actual) handicapped person, I have to agree that Southwest has a problem with FAKE CRIPPLES. Southwest could solve this problem by eliminating wheelchairs and using golf carts. Those of us who actually have disabilities are upset by those who use wheelchairs to get better seats. Southwest is usually pretty good about finding the actual handicapped people at the gate and helping them get to a seat

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *