Are Airline Passengers Faking the Need for Wheelchairs to Board Early?

Requiring assistance to board may get you on the plane first, but the perks are limited (and evidence of a scam is inconclusive)

A man in a wheelchair hands his ID to a TSA officer at a screening checkpoint at Orlando International Airport. Some Twitter conjecture suggests passengers are faking the need for wheelchairs to get on board early.
We really don't think this is a scam
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

While we don’t think older passengers are utilizing a vile TikTok travel hack that suggests faking the need for a wheelchair to skip lines at the airport, some Twitters users are claiming that the number of people needing wheelchairs to board their flights (and boarding early) is suspicious.

Via Twitter user @ElonBachman, a flight from Puerto Rico to possibly Florida (the destination wasn’t clear but implied) points out multiple passengers, sometimes in the dozens, showing up in wheelchairs and boarding planes early. However, upon arrival, as few as just one of those dozens of passengers will need assistance.

There’s a lot of conjecture in the tweets — the arrival being Florida, the actual numbers of passengers requiring assistance boarding and deplaning, how old the passengers were, etc. — but several other Twitter users chimed in with similar observations.

Is it a scam? Is it bias or ageism from other entitled passengers? It’s complicated. As the travel site View From the Wing notes, passengers in wheelchairs on Southwest Airlines get priority boarding over the “A” boarding group, which features passengers who paid more and have higher status. So there’s certainly an incentive for fraud, particularly on an airline that offers open seating on a first come, first served basis. Requiring assistance also gets around basic economy restrictions on an airline like United (including carry-on luggage) because those policies are enforced by boarding group.

Heathrow CEO Claims Passengers Use This Vile TikTok Hack to Skip Lines
If you don’t require a wheelchair to get through the airport, you should under no circumstances be requesting a wheelchair to get through the airport

But there’s also room for skepticism. The same article notes that if these flights are taking off or landing in Puerto Rico or Florida, well, there are a lot of older residents traveling to and from those destinations. As well, “More passengers getting assistance onto the aircraft than getting off doesn’t on its own mean that somebody is ‘faking it,’” writes Gary Leff. “The long waits for assistance, making it difficult to get help, can mean choosing not to wait even when it would be better for someone to do so. Plus you’re going to want to get up and move around after sitting in a coach seat for the full flight.”

The Twitter thread did offer a number of solutions, for better or worse: People utilizing wheelchairs to board should be last to deplane, having to show a disabled parking pass (which is physician-approved) to get preboarding privileges, etc. But outside of a few perks (particularly Southwest, which maybe you shouldn’t be flying), what’s the point of getting on the plane first except for overhead bin storage? And, side note, the airlines have a lousy record on helping disabled passengers — maybe adding a layer of distrust for people in wheelchairs isn’t in anyone’s best interests.

If the system is being abused, it’s going to be hard and socially awkward to force people to prove their need for assistance when boarding a plane. The boarding process is already broken — and you should wait until the last minute to board anyway.


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