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?