Trend? People Request Wheelchair Assistance for Airport Priority When They’re Just Fine

Thanks to a reader, with apologies I’m no longer certain who, CBS ran a story on people using wheelchairs to get priority access at airports — even when they don’t need assistance.

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 are paid based on an assumption that they’ll be receiving tips, although in many cases they aren’t allowed to solicit tips. I actually don’t know the right amount to tip, and I’m interested in feedback here. I guess $5 is appropriate.

There are three potential benefits I see to this strategy, all involve boarding the aircraft early.

  • Better seating on Southwest. This matters most with 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. This one’s more speculative, but if you need priority boarding assistance you aren’t in the last boarding group, and the full-sized carry on ban (disappearing next month on American, still in place with United, on the cheapest tickets) is enforced by boarding group. Does anyone have experience with this, it’s not something I’ve paid attention to, but presumably a customer on a basic economy fare who shows up needing assistance would get a carry on despite their fare.

Some would see a benefit to skipping a check-in queue or security, but waiting in those lines is outside my experience – 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.

Last summer I fractured a bone in my foot while traveling. Then I walked across the Dallas Fort-Worth airport on it. That wasn’t smart. A few days later I had to be up in the air again, and I requested a wheelchair meet me in Atlanta. I was flying Delta and connecting from the end of the T concourse to the opposite end of B, and I don’t think I could have walked it.

I didn’t need a wheelchair onto the plane in Austin, so I was using the opposite of this strategy. Delta didn’t have a way of requesting the service in Atlanta but not on my arrival in DC. They told me “just walk past the person waiting for you if you don’t need them.” I couldn’t quite do that, I tipped them anyway and told them I was fine to walk. Being assigned to me meant losing out on helping someone else that likely would have tipped.

There’s certainly no checking whether or not you need assistance when assigning you a wheelchair. And showing up in a wheelchair on its own validates your request or need for extra time boarding.

Do you see any other benefits to wheelchair use for airport priority besides getting on the plane early for overhead bin space and on Southwest for a better seat?

And how do you feel about people who do this? It feels instinctively wrong, although I’m not sure I am aware of a rash of people being denied wheelchair assistance because of too much ‘illegitimate’ demand.

  • If enough people did it that would either cause waits for assistance or a need for more contract workers and wheelchairs, which would drive up airline costs that would ultimately affect levels of service or price.
  • 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’).

Have you ever done this? Would you admit it if you had?

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. It is called “”karma”. Life is fickle and no knows their fate. I’m sure there are many people in wheelchairs who would gladly wait in line if they were able.

  2. It’s not a “strategy”, it’s fraud and abuse. It raises everyone’s ticket prices do to the additional expense. Anyone who does this is a narcissistic sociopath.

  3. I fly a mix of United and Southwest. I see a lot more people on average in wheelchairs for Southwest. Most seem like they need it. But at least one person per flight doesn’t seem like they need it and they are almost always with a group of 5 or 6 people/kids.

    So I would add another note to Southwest in your post above. It allows a larger group to ensure they can sit together compared to if you are all middle B section.

    With that said, it really doesn’t bother me as I board early regardless. But I can see how people who are shafted with their carry-on can get super angry over someone who doesn’t look like they need a wheelchair taking their spot.

  4. I have a friend who is a travel agent and she tells ALL her clients over age 70 to ask for wheelchair assistance whenever transiting through an airport. She assumes they will either be confused, slow, or not in shape…..or all of the above.

  5. It’s like parking in the handicapped spot when you don’t need it. Disgusting, unethical, and pathetic.

  6. On the opposite side of the coin, clearly there *are* people who need the assistance of a wheelchair from the ticket counter to the gate, and the gate to baggage claim (and/or outside). Indeed my mother-in-law is one such individual. She suffered a leg injury in a train crash some 55-60 years ago. In her 80s now, she CAN walk, and gets around our house and town just fine…with the assistance of a handicap placard for parking and (occasionally) a cane — though she hates to use it. But if I’m dropping her off at the airport, the walk from curbside check-in (when available) through TSA and all the way to the gate (whether it’s SFO or OAK) is much to far for her to walk comfortably (as in “pain free”), let alone were she in a hurry to catch a flight/connection. And from the gate down to baggage claim, then out to the sidewalk (whether it’s at LAS, YVR, LAX or other cities in which she has family) — again, way too far.

    So, I for one am VERY grateful for this service. It’s what allows me to drop her off at the airport, and not have to worry about her getting to the correct gate in a timely matter; or to pick her up curbside (with her luggage), without the hassle of parking, of getting a pass so I can get through Security w/o a boarding pass, and spend the next 60-90 minutes with her while we wait for her to board…or having to do it all in reverse — meeting her plane at the gate, etc., etc.

    (And by the way, she tips everyone who has helped her along the way.)


    THIS IS NOT TO SAY there aren’t abuses of this service. Of course there are. There are people who will indeed take advantage of or cutting corners for services wherever they can, even though they aren’t entitled to them. Sadly, I suppose, that’s human nature for you — gettin’ sumpthin’ for nuttin’. I only hope they won’t ruin it for the people who actually need it.

  7. there s/b a say a $100 fee that is fully refunded if you use the wheelchair assistance upon arrival. Most cheaters wont since it means being the last ones off the plane most of the time

    also at max ONLY 1 other person traveling with them s/b allowed to board early with them, Ive seen it where a large family or a ton of friends all board when they do saying we are all together

    Doubt either will ever be implemented

  8. My 83-year-old mother can walk, but not fast or far. Her knee and her hip aren’t great anymore. When I take her on a trip, I request a wheelchair for her. We fly first class, so we don’t use any of the benefits you mentioned. In fact, we end up having to wait on the boarding ramp until every passenger who needs assistance gets off the plane before they take everyone as a group up the ramp on on to wherever they’re going. I’ve thought about bringing my own wheelchair because I could push Mom myself and not have to wait, but that would bring its own difficulties.

    As far as tipping, I tip $5-20, depending on which bills I have on me, preferring to tip more because they are generally very nice.

  9. Yes, it’s a trend.

    Southwest flights to Florida are sometimes called “miracle flights” by flight attendants. Perhaps 10-20 sun birds need wheelchairs when boarding. But upon arriving many can miraculously walk.

    What’s happening?

    Wheelchairs allow them to board first and get better seats for free. But upon arriving they don’t want to wait for a wheelchair.

  10. It “feels” wrong? C’mon. Everyone knows that scamming the system is wrong. The CBS story will just feed the phenomenon until the airlines crack down the way that they had to with Emotional Support Animals.

  11. WTF why is it expected that wheelcbair pushers are supposed to get tips? Tipping culture in the US has to be the stupidest, most irrational way in the world to compensate people. Everyone needs to just boycott tipping.

  12. Gary,

    The adventure from curbside to gate is indeed more taxing and perhaps overwhelming than the one from gate to curbside. My folks are to the point where even if they do not need a wheelchair, waiting at security is taxing, and finding their way to a gate a challenge meaningfully bigger than deplaning and going to luggage claim.

    I did not, however, know that pushing a wheel chair at the airport was a “tipped” profession.

  13. DaveS says:

    “It’s like parking in the handicapped spot when you don’t need it. Disgusting, unethical, and pathetic.”

    This is precisely correct. If this really is a trend, it is indeed disgusting, unethical, and pathetic.

    Don’t encourage this by treating it so neutrally Gary.

  14. Essentially, these people are saying that they’re more important than everyone else. I sure wish I was important.

  15. There is more to the story in most cases.
    When I was almost 50 I injured my back and had rouble. with traversing long distances in the airport. I asked for wheelchair assistance transferring at MXP from Domestic to International. Sadly, with only two hours between flights, the wheelchair crew kept telling me to be calm as they waited for it to be too late for my Swissair flight. I even phoned the station manager for Swissair but when he heard I was 50 feet away IN A WHEELCHAIR they closed the door. There were others that also missed the flight and I was suddenly cured as I was hopping around to keep up with our group which was being accommodated on another flight to a nearby destination. While it might have looked like a sham, I really could barely walk.

  16. I think the wheelchair service is needed. My parents fly southwest, they are over 80 in age and cannot walk long distances. I do think it is a trend but would call it a stretch to say that a lot of people would scam it to board early. Most people are ethical enough not to do that but some people are scammers and take advantage of it.
    My parents also fly Cathay Pacific and when I request for wheelchair for them with reservations Cathay Pacific would ask and document the reason why they need wheelchair assistance.
    Maybe the other airlines can adopt that approach as well.

  17. You don’t need a wheelchair to early board. I need extra time to get down the jet bridge because I am so important.

  18. I was recently in India and travelled a local Airline by the name of Vistara. They had a refreshing policy of “Wheelchairs board last”. They let the regular passengers board first, as per their priority, and after everyone has boarded, Passengers needing assistance and wheelchairs board. The FA’s take their carry ons and place them wherever they find space nearby.
    This will certainly help filter out those who are out to game the system.

  19. There are many miracle flights to Florida. Often there are three to six requiring assistance when we get on in Toronto, Houston, Dallas, MInneapolis or Denver, but there are usually no more than 2 and often none when we get off in Orlando.

  20. I think a limit of one accompanying passenger would cut down on a lot of the abuse. I’m amused by the other comments calling out Southwest passengers. When I was recently in Honolulu boarding a Hawaiian flight with my 78-year-old mother, who does need the wheelchair, I commented to my mother “that’s some Southwest behavior” in observing two other families with at least 6 family members following the wheelchair (one of whose occupants was walking around the terminal without assistance until the early boarding call came). The early boarding arrangement should be just inconvenient for everyone except the person in need of assistance.

  21. Can I get on board early if my fake emotional support animal with a fake peanut allergy requires a fake wheel chair?

  22. Unless you’re sitting in a premium class, why go to such lengths to board early? If you absolutely need to occupy the bin space directly over your reserved seat, and may throw a fit if denied to you, then cough up the money for a premium cabin.

  23. @Steve Horwitz – I actually don’t think I am treating it neutrally. I am skeptical this is a trend. I don’t see enough benefit to support why it might become a trend. And I suggest both that it feels instinctively wrong and offer Kantian reasons to reject the practice. I don’t offer any arguments in support. I just found the claim it was a trend interesting..

  24. In South Florida we call them “miracle flights”. People need wheelchair assistance in New York or Philadelphia in order to get priority through security and priority boarding. But they are miraculously cured when they get to Florida, and don’t want to wait until everyone exits the aircraft.

  25. My dad can’t walk at all. When I fly with him, he needs an aisle chair to get from the door of the airplane to his seat. This is time-consuming enough that we’re always boarded first among the wheelchairs. Most often, we’re flying STL-MCO, and there are often quite a few wheelchairs preboarding. I’ve never seen any other wheelchair passengers grumble, though, about my dad going on first.

    As far as tipping, we usually tip $5 or $10, although I typically push him myself when I can.

  26. Ya, quite a few more using wheelchairs than even a couple years earlier. On the whole, I think populations are living longer and perhaps the average age is rising. Priority boarding excuse? I’m not one to say who is and who isn’t disabled. I’m disabled, can’t walk very far but too proud to have anyone cart my butt on the plane. What I see happening more and more, is that one family member is maybe disabled, in a wheelchair, and the whole extended family (maybe friends too) are boarding with the person in the wheelchair. It’s a damn procession! That’s totally wrong and bogus IMO. Airlines should allow ONE person to board with the person in the wheelchair. The rest can WAIT along with the rest of us. Entitlement is probably more the problem.

  27. Gary, maybe this is a “trend” in the US but this is the norm for flights to India on the ME3. There are more wheelchair passengers than the entire J and F cabins combined and they all board first. With some stereotyping, it’s a very common Indian thing.

  28. I’ve seen lines of 12-15 wheelchairs on international flights, especially to and from the Dominican Republic. Even though they disembark last, they usually beat me through customs. At that point many are suddenly healed.

  29. One other benefit, wheelchair assistance often gets you an express pass to the front of the TSA security line.

  30. @Ray
    You’re damn straight. You pay a ton of money for a tour, and the tour guide has the huevos to ask $3-$6/day per person for a tip. Tip? Tip for what? Your employer isn’t paying you or paying you enough and wants me to subsidize your salary for something I already paid for? LOL! Sure, I’ll pay a tip for a service that goes above and beyond what was not included in the brochure. Same goes for cruises, which are probably the worst and terribly expensive. They underpay their slaves and ask, no tell, the vacationers to pick up the slack after you just paid $15K for a cruise. Gratuities automatically added to your bill at the end of the cruise. That’s total BS. It goes on and on. If your employer is not paying you enough, quit and go work somewhere else!

  31. @Ray —. Perhaps if people such as the “wheelchair pushers” and others in similar jobs were paid a living wage, one could do away with the “tipping culture.”

    To shift for a moment to the most obvious example of tipping in the US, some restaurants ARE switching to a “service compris” form of check, as is common in Europe for example. I wish I had a $1 for every time I heard someone complain about having the tip included in the total bill
    • the server didn’t deserve a tip, why do I have to give it to him/her;
    •. I wouldn’t have given that much — I would have only tipped x%.
    • and then the racist $#|+ enters into it, and I’m not going to provide examples of that crap!

    The Federal minimum wage in the US is $7.25/hour, although it *is* higher in some states. If you work a 40-hour week. If you make minimum wage and work 52 weeks a year (with NO vacation time, NO overtime, NOI exceptions), your pre-tax income is $15,080/year. The poverty level is $22,162 for a family of four with 2 kids under 18. Low income is defined as 2x the poverty level.

    Hey, if you can live on $15k a year, more power to you, but I don’t personally know of anyone who can.

  32. @Jason Brandt Lewis — you are completely off base, SeaTac for example has $15 min wage and the tipping culture is no different there. As for $15k/year, that’s a common PhD student stipend, esp. in the humanities.

  33. @Jason Brandt Lewis
    Perhaps I’m wrong but I don’t believe conditions of carriage include free wheelchair services and early boarding along with your posse. I’ve counted as many as 10 boarding with the person in the wheelchair, all in a rush to get that overhead storage space no doubt. I think wheelchair service is a courtesy the airlines supply, supposedly for the truly disabled. It’s out of control much like the earlier example of Emotional Support Animals. That’s beside the fact. If the airlines aren’t paying a “living wage” to the wheelchair pushers, the wheelchair pushers are free to seek jobs elsewhere. Nobody is holding a gun to the wheelchair pusher’s head to work. Too much I’m a victim or I’m entitled.

  34. Once saw a lady boarded in a wheelchair and make a big act of struggling to get into her seat once onboard. The flight was delayed and we arrived at our destination around an hour late. The same lady apparently had a tight connection as, somewhat miraculously, there was no need for a wheelchair when the aircraft doors opened and she ran down the jetbridge into the airport.

  35. As a person that uses a motorized scooter, here is my first hand account of requesting wheelchair assistance at airports:

    Going through security — at some airports, this CAN be quicker. If I was able to walk through the security-scanner, then this would be quick. If not, I need to wait for a TSA screener to push me through, and then pat me down. Still required to follow all the TSA procedures for removing laptops from bags, shoes, liquids. In Asia, they usually help me get to the front of the security line, or go through the staff line.

    For departures, I’ll almost always be the first to board, along with others traveling in my party. This is very beneficial as it gives me extra time to board, and quickly use the on-board restroom before taking a seat. More importantly, there aren’t a dozen people with carry-ons in front of me trying to put up their luggage and behind me pushing me to hurry up (and increase the risk of injuring myself).

    For arrivals, people requesting wheelchair assistance are usually asked to de-plane last. This is because 1) everyone else is standing and theres no way to safely get through to the plane door, and 2) the staff that pushes the wheelchairs sometimes take a while to arrive. On busy days, these pushers can be pushing as many as 5 people at a time (continually having run back and push another passenger). The staff are invaluable because they can also assist with getting my luggage from baggage claim.

    Going through customs: They usually take me through a special lane, sometimes lines dedicated for crew. This sometimes saves time, but at times can take an extra 30 minutes.

    “wheelchair assistance” does not always save time, but has its benefits to those that need it.

    Just like the abuse of handicap placards, it disgusts me when people take advantage of the system. HOWEVER, disabilities sometimes cannot be visibly seen. Sometimes people cannot walk long distances, just had surgery, etc. I once had a parking enforcement officer get ready to ticket me when I was parked in a disabled spot (with valid placard) saying “you don’t look disabled.” Can ANYONE say definitively what does it look like to be disabled? So I caution that all because someone looks fine, there may be valid reasons for requesting wheelchair assistance.

    On the topic of requiring proof to request wheelchair assistance, that’d be difficult to monitor. And it reminds me of the recent news of an airline asking for proof of a child’s disability.

  36. If they need extra time getting on then they need extra time getting off. Make the Preboarders exit the plane *LAST*. Bet that reduces the number scamming the system.

  37. Agree with others, on SW, it is abused. I witnessed a woman up walking around the gate area, then went back and set in a wheelchair at boarding time and the 3 grown people with her got to board with her. And, I have seen the groups of 6,7, maybe 8 people board with a person in a wheelchair and then i have boarded right behind them and they will not all be sitting near the one in the wheelchair.

  38. As someone who flies from the northeast to Florida frequently on Southwest, experience has taught me that 1) “miracle flights” are the norm, 2) families use it as a “strategy,” and that 3) there’s no easy solution.

    It’s especially galling when people pay for Business Select or buy early boarding at the gate for $40: Then they get to watch 6 or 7 wheelchair PAX and their entourages take all of the desirable seats and overhead bins.

    Since WN gate agents cannot and should not question the legitimacy of a claimed disability, there’s little they can do. The success of WN’s open seating policy really depends on honor and good will. Both are in increasingly short supply these days.

  39. Just because they are not elderly or they dont seem to YOU to need a wheelchair doesnt mean they dont. We should never judge people on appearance. Your time will come and you will want others who may not see your ailment to be understanding also. Charging for a service due to a disability is inhumane. We all pay enough to fly anyway.

  40. My elderly mother uses wheelchair assistance to travel due to arthritis and a bad knee. You’d be surprised how often she has to wait because there isn’t anyone available to assist or the agents ignore the request on her reservation. Her last flight, they unloaded the plane away from the jetbridge and she had to struggle down stairs and across the tarmac because the airline didn’t bother to get assistance. If people didn’t abuse the system, I expect the service would be more reliable. She tips $5-10 depending on the difficulty of the connection, her luggage, etc. I’m thankful it’s available as she couldn’t travel without it, but the level of convenience depends entirely on the customer service of the airline agents.

  41. I’m sure there are some who abuse it. I think some scope for abuse can be limited if early boarding is only given to the individual who needs help plus a single guardian. I’d point out that it’s impossible to judge someone’s state by looking at them.

    My grandmother was generally fit for her age, but would get confused in new situations. There’s no easy way to ask for an escort during a connection without getting a wheelchair, so we’d always get her a wheelchair just to make sure she got on the right plane!

  42. What do you mean that it “feels wrong”? If you don’t need a wheelchair it IS wrong. Really kind of shocked that there is any hesitation in this statement.

  43. I have seen this situation from both sides. My MIL, 82, can walk short distances, but longer ones are a challenge due to her knees. She fought us the first time we insisted on a wheelchair in the airport; but when she saw how much less stressed we all were when we arrived at the gate, the arguments went away. Also, though she does jump to the front of the TSA line; she releasex the wheelchair driver upon arrival at the gate, and boards by foot, with her ticketed zone.

    That said, I frequently fly to Haiti. On a flight to Haiti, you will regularly see 25 older ladies (rarely men) being wheeled onto the plane. As cited by other posters, these same ladies hop off the plane in Haiti, sprite as a fairy. Our running joke is that we will probably see them the next day with the huge market baskets on their heads. (After many years, I remain in awe of the strength and stamina of the older citizens of Haiti.) In Miami/Ft. Lauderdale; even being last off the plane, the wheelchair is a good deal because they roll though the long international arrival corridors and go to a separate line for immigration.

    I’ve never noticed whether the families traveling with the wheelchair riders board with them – I guess they do – now I will need to watch!

    Signed –
    My peanut allergy is real, but what’s a little anaphylaxis compared to your need to stuff your face with .5 oz of free food?

  44. So I think the solution is to have all wheelchaired passengers board after all general boarding. (They can preboard and wait in the jet bridge five minutes before the gate officially closes.) They can have one guardian or helper. This alone would probably eliminate everyone who isn’t disabled and might even speed up the boarding process. Absolutely no extended family and friends except for the one designated guardian or helper. The “wheelchair fee” shouldn’t be taken off the table unless it’s included in terms or condition of carriage. Ninety percent of them will be miraculously healed at ticketing.

  45. Why do so many passengers from India, who otherwise look like they can walk, have wheelchair requests on international flights?

    The primary reason is for transit — in many cases, it is people going abroad for the first time, not very familiar in English (especially the females, who are going for “grandma duty”). In such cases, it is a great help just to go through a transit airport. Interestingly, you do NOT find many wheelchair passengers in Indian domestic flights — sort of validating my theory.

    But this comes at a cost — at least my experience when traveling with my 75+ year old mother-in-law is that you are at the mercy of the golf-cart drivers, and often are stranded at one or two intermediate points which in turn means you have little or no time to even go to the restroom before the second flight.

    My own last flight was in Business Class on Qatar from India. I had no issues boarding, but something I ate at the Doha lounge made me nauseous. So in the entire 15 hour flight from Doha to the USA, all I had was about half a cup of ginger ale — and I was still feeling not quite right upon landing, so used a wheelchair. In more than 30 years of travel between USA and India, that was only the second time I had to use a wheelchair — the first time was about five years ago, when I sprained my ankle two days before a flight.

  46. @Ken: totally agree!

    One time in SFO I was going through immigration and saw about 40 Indian men and women in wheelchairs, presumably off the AI flight, parked in an interim space before actual immigration positions. I have never seen so many!

  47. Waiting to board JetBlue at FLL. Gate Agent called the flight. I watched a 50 something woman RUN across the terminal area, jump into a wheel chair so she and 6 or 7 “family” could board first.

    LAX, Alaska gate, Agent announced “anyone traveling with children may board first.” I saw an obviously teenage “child” and (by actual count) 15 family members spring to the jetway.

    Beyond gaming the system: narcissism, self-importance and complete lack of respect for anyone else.

  48. It’s interesting to watch the people who “need” wheelchair access while getting priority boarding Southwest’s flight to Las Vegas, then, on arrival, miraculously are able to deplane without a wheelchair. Praise the almighty for the healing of these souls!

  49. There is a great benefit when traveling internationally. I had a hip replacement and went to Hong Kong for business. That airport is huge so the wheelchair was needed. They took me to the front of the immigration line and since I was traveling business first on United, I was out of the airport in about 20 minutes from the time I was seated in the wheelchair to getting my luggage! Same happened years before when I was traveling with a colleague to Mexico City. She, too, had a hip replacement and getting whisked to the front of the immigration line was huge because the lines were huge. So if you need it for physical reasons, there are other benefits!

  50. @kr brings up a great point, int’l travelers ought to be able to request language assistance. These can be volunteer (e.g., high school students with foreign language proficiency) and would be a great help.

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