The wheelchair scam at airports is real and it adversely impacts those who legitimately need wheelchairs, particularly those who have hidden disabilities. But perhaps a more innovative boarding process could eliminate those who are just looking to game the system to board early.
How Can Airline Wheelchair Abuse In Order To Pre-Board Be Reduced?
A viral tweet asserts that wheelchair abuse is rampant in San Juan, Puerto Rico, including a photo and description of a recent Southwest Airlines flight (remember, only single-aisle 737 jets) that included 25 wheelchairs lined up for pre-boarding with 30 “helpers” who also needed to pre-board.
“On his return flight, 15 used wheelchairs to board, only one to deboard.”
That’s quite a ratio, isn’t it?
A friend shares a not-uncommon sight from Puerto Rico:
55 “handicapped” during pre-boarding, including 25 wheel chairs
On his return flight, 15 used wheelchairs to board, only 1 to deboard pic.twitter.com/gHgIsnzsq7
— Bachman (@ElonBachman) February 19, 2023
These sorts of incidents are known as “Jetway Jesus” events, where the passengers are miraculously “healed” on the flight. In reality, this sort of scam goes on all over the world and is nothing new.
I saw it in El Salvador myself (and not in Los Angeles upon landing).
This is one of those problems in which there is no clear solution since so many injuries or conditions are not outwardly visible. I don’t think the answer is to start quizzing those who request wheelchairs in an attempt to verify the legitimacy of their request.
Thus, while the answer is not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in order to eliminate abuse, perhaps the better solution would be board these customers last instead of first.
The incentive to scam is great because pre-boarding means overhead bin space, a superior seat selection (on Southwest Airlines), and generally a more relaxing boarding process than waiting in a slow-moving line on a hot or cold jet bridge with other passengers.
But imagine if those who needed extra time to board were boarded last, just like they are last to be collected once a flight lands? Logistical challenges like blocking overhead bin space or reserving an aisle seat in the last two rows on Southwest Airlines could be arranged…that’s not a dealbreaker.
Do you really think that scammers would go through with it if they had to board last and were seated in the back of the plane? I don’t.
When 15 wheelchairs are needed to board a plane and only one to exit the aircraft upon landing, we see a system that appears broken. But privacy concerns and the latent nature of some disabilities leave no easy solution for dealing with this problem. I would like to see airlines try boarding these passengers last and see if that cuts down on the abuse most of us, at one point in our travels, have observed.
(image: @ElonBachman / Twitter // H/T: View From The Wing)