The Most Selfish Thing We’ve Ever Heard: Wheelchair Cheats

To get around waiting in notoriously long and slow-moving airport security lines, some quite able-bodied passengers are requesting wheelchairs to get through security and TSA screeners more quickly. From there, they are brought directly to their gate by uniformed attendants and allowed to board first at which point, the New York Times says, some hop up, heavy bag(s) in hand and walk on.

There are no statistics on airport “wheelchair cheats” and the percentage of people doing this appears to be small. But hearing about this making me think that some people really have no shame.

The use of the wheelchairs pushed by attendants at airports is not at all regulated. People requesting the chairs are not required to show any medical proof of a disability. The attendants, who only make between $9 to $14 an hour and rely on tips, have plenty of motivation to look the other way when the person who was, just a moment a go, sitting in a wheelchair, is on their own two feet and hurrying off.

Those in wheelchairs board planes first and disembark last. As a result, there may be a small crowd of people in wheelchairs in the boarding area of a flight while, says the New York Times, it is not unusual a to see a couple of empty chairs at the arrival gate. As Kelly Skyles, a flight attendant and the national safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, says:

We’d say there was a miracle because they all needed a wheelchair getting on, but not getting off. Not only do we serve them beverages and ensure their safety — now we’re healing the sick.

The 1986 federal Air Carrier Access Act mandated accommodations for travelers with disabilities and airports provide the wheelchairs for free. But while you need a permit to park in a spot designated for individuals with disabilities, no such proof is required for an airport wheelchair. Peter Greenberg, the travel editor for CBS News, even tells the New York Times that there seems to be a correlation between stricter airport security checks and more people exploiting the loophole.

I know a number of people with disabilities who indeed need wheelchairs in airports. They would much rather walk and the stories behind why they are using the chair — an amputation due to an accident, multiple sclerosis — are full of painful, tough experiences.

It can be argued that there’s no real harm done when those without disabilities request a wheelchair. The attendants get some business and there are one (or two or three) fewer people in the security line.There are cases in which people, such as elderly passengers, request the chairs as they are not able to stand in long security lines or to manage the distances in airports. But when I think of the efforts relatives and friends with disabilities, or who have children with disabilities, have to make not only to get through the airport but to the airport and to manage on the airplane with all manner of medical equipment, wheelchair cheats are a troubling symbol of how little understanding there is for what it means to have a physical or other disability.

Far from being a “convenience,” needing to ask for a wheelchair is a stark reminder of accommodations that you have no choice but to ask for. Disability is not something you can just take a vacation from.


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Photo by ISO 1987


Cheryl B.
Cheryl B4 years ago

My mother needs a wheelchair sometimes, but we take our own, and we tip well..... and she goes through security like everybody else

Christopher M.
Christopher M.5 years ago

If I blow out my knees, I might need a wheelchair even if I can still walk.

Georgia G.
Georgia a5 years ago

Adrian M: I must use a wheelchair and my bags are ALWAYS CHECKED. They want to send me thru the scanner, too, but my body refuses to allow me to stand for that long so they use the handheld one. So, even tho I'm in a wheelchair, I get the full works, including the removal of my shoes.

jenny H.
jenny H5 years ago

I thought we were taught not to judge - disabilities are not always visible ones!

That said, I think we are living in a world where many people lack compassion and empathy for others. All too often it is each man for himself. People rally around when there is a disaster or tragedy, but the rest of the time they are too wrapped up in themselves and their own lives.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred H5 years ago

Thank you Kristina, for Sharing this!

Julia Wellman
Julia Wellman5 years ago

Also, it is incorrect to assume that those in a wheelchair do not go through the same security procedures. They took my cane away and made me hobble through the metal detector, in case I was concealing something. I had a full pat down, just like anyone else. All of my luggage was inspected, including my medical supplies, so everyone got to see my catheters. So no, some crazy terrorist could not use the wheelchair defense.

And yes, there are SO many people with invisible disabilities. I'm sure there are liars and fakers out there yes, but personally I'd rather let them do it than accuse innocent people.

Julia Wellman
Julia Wellman5 years ago

Really? Because I'm disabled and I was allowed to use the wheelchair to get to and from my terminals. But I had a three hour layover at which time the chair was taken away from me and I had to use my cane. I normally use my cane, but I don't normally have a bunch of luggage with me, that I had to then carry, which took a very long time, caused immense pain, and made me fall more than once. I'd rather people give out chairs freely than be stingy with them. Since I'm only 25 people tend to give me dirty looks and think I'm faking as it is, since most people don't want to consider the idea of someone being hurt so young, and would rather just think I'm a bad person.

Kili W.
Kili W5 years ago

Actually -- if you're in a wheelchair, you get put through all the same screening procedures as everyone else. I get out of the wheelchair and stand in the people scanner, and my carry-on luggage goes through the x-ray just like everyone else's. The major difference for me is that if my back is acting up (which it is much of the time when traveling, simply because loading my luggage into my trunk to get to the airport can start it kicking before I even get there), I don't have to stand for a long period of time, crippling myself further and ending up incapacitated at the other end of the trip. I broke my ankle last year, and I'd rather do that 10 more times than have ONE full-blast episode of my back going out. Standing triggers my back and can screw me up and render me bed-ridden for days -- so I avoid doing so.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Lowes, had walked through the store, put my purchases in my cart and went to add a small item.... bent a bit to put it in and.... there went my back. I squeeked and grabbed the cart to brace myself so I wouldn't hit the ground. Another customer her the squeek, took one look at me and said "did your back just go out?"... I nodded (I was in too much pain to speak and catching my breath) and he got a store employee to bring me one of the power carts so I could get to the register. A store employee helped me get to my car with my purchases, loaded my trunk for me and then took the power cart back to the store. Until my back "tr

Kili W.
Kili W5 years ago

I am one of those they're probably talking about -- and what they don't understand is that some of us cannot stand in lines. I'm fine walking, but standing in one place my herniated disc compresses and my legs go out from under me. So yes, I take a wheelchair getting on the plane so that I don't end up crippled before I board, and can walk off because I'm find if I'm in motion. I cannot possibly be the only person out there with a badly herniated disc who simply cannot stand in one place without triggering massive pain and even having their legs go out from under them when the nerves end up compressed.

I've had my back go out at checkout counters, in security lines, in line at the grocery store, etc. I do NOT have a problem while walking. The first time I took a wheelchair in an airport, my back had gone out at the check-in counter and they called for a wheelchair. After sitting on the flight for several hours, my back had calmed down again -- so I walked out of the airport at the other end.

It would be really nice if when people whine about such things, they could also realize that perhaps they simply do not have all the facts on what's going on. Someone with an issue such as a severely herniated L5-S1 (which from what I read is 80% of all herniated discs), isn't in a constant state of inability to move -- it's an intermittent issue, and standing in one place can exacerbate the issue. I've stood in line and ended up falling down, because my left leg "dis

Victoria G.
Victoria M5 years ago

In response to Adrian M., I always had my luggage very thoroughly inspected when I was using a wheelchair at the airport. They would make me send my luggage through the same screening as everyone else, and they would both wand me and do a pat-down (the earlier version, not the one that everyone has complained about since they stepped it up, but it was still quite thorough, but not embarrassing to me or anything), since my medical device did not allow me to go through the metal detector.

So unless things have changed (and granted, policies vary from airport to airport), at least at the Ontario airport and the Phoenix one, I was thoroughly inspected, both my luggage, my carry-ons, and my person.