Bogus wheelchair requests

Disability advocates blowing the whistle on fakes


In an effort to get around longer waits, it appears more and more people are asking for a wheelchair at airports, even though they aren't disabled.

Just a little more than a week ago, it was reported that something similar happened at Walt Disney World. Families hired a disabled person to pretend they're a member of the family, just so they could skip to the front of the lines.  Now some disability advocates are blowing the whistle on fakes in airports.

"We've handled maybe a hundred wheelchairs a year. Now there are some certain times we can handle a hundred wheelchairs in a day," said Peter Scherrer, airport manager in Westchester County, Conn.

Scherrer manages a small airport, but he's not the only one scrambling.  One mid-size airport said it keeps 300 wheelchairs on hand at all times now.  A large, major facility said it receives 2,000 requests for special assistance every day.

That's partly because more people with disabilities are traveling.  But disability advocates are now blowing the whistle on able-bodied passengers who they say are playing the system to save time.

"People who don't really need special assistance or have a disability sometimes do say they're a person with a disability to go through that special line or to the head of the line to get through security quicker," said Kleo King with the United Spinal Association. 

Or, on the plane first.  It's hard to say officially how many of the requests for wheelchairs are bogus, but King estimates it at 15 percent nationwide.

That makes traveler Barb Likos, mom to a special needs child, angry.

"When people abuse the system it makes it harder for my child to access the accommodations that he needs, and it's frustrating and it's rude," she said.

But the airlines say they feel grounded when it comes to cheaters.  By law, they are required to give assistance to anyone who asks, or risk hefty fines.  And they also have to be careful of what they ask.

"They can ask questions about what do they need for assistance. They can't ask, ‘What is your disability' and invade peoples' privacy," explained King.

But advocates and airline personnel say they're hearing more complaints about so-called"miracle flights."

"It's a phrase that's coined by a lot of the flight attendants.  They see a person come on with a wheel chair and when they get to the destination, for some reason, they actually are able to walk again," said Sherrer.

"If, in fact, you really didn't need assistance, you're not going to keep up the ruse and wait  fifteen, twenty minutes for wheelchair assistance to get off the plane," said King.

That part really bothers Likos, who believes she has a simple solution.

"I think we need a universal disability pass. it's recognized legitimately throughout all the different places we would travel," she suggested.

It exists in other countries. but the Spinal Association says there currently aren't plans for that here.  So for now, the honor system rules the runway.

"We want to spend more of our time providing the service that you need rather than sitting there trying to figure out if someone's trying to manipulate the system," said Scherrer.

Channel 4's Nikki Kimbleton spoke with several people, including managers and Sky Caps from Jacksonville International Airport.  They say they don't see bogus wheelchair requests as an issue here. 

What should you do if you see someone who appears to be abusing the disability assistance?  The answer is nothing.  Disabilities are not always evident.  Airline officials make it clear they want those who truly need the service to be able to use it.