The familiar drudgery was under way along the security line at Kennedy International Airport on a recent afternoon. Shoes were fumbled off feet, laptops unearthed from satchels and belts tugged from their loops. But mostly people waited, shuffled and waited as they wound their way to the front of the line.
But one couple had a different experience. Pushed along in the wheelchairs each airline provides by request, they whizzed past the line to a specially designated and briskly efficient Transportation Security Administration screener. Once cleared, the woman suddenly sprang up from her wheelchair, hoisted two huge carry-on bags from the magnetometer’s conveyor belt and plopped back in the wheelchair. She gave a nod to the person pushing her, and they rolled off to the gate.
In the modern airport experience, where the tedium of long lines, sudden delays and ever-more-invasive security checks is the norm, little can be done to avoid the frustrations increasingly endemic to travel. So it may be an expected, if uncomfortable, fact that some travelers appear to exploit perhaps the only remaining loophole to a breezy airport experience — the line-cutting privileges given to people who request airport wheelchairs, for which no proof of a disability is required.
The practice, tacitly endorsed by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy from wheelchair pushers, who sometimes receive tips, is so commonplace that airport workers can predict spikes in wheelchair requests when security is particularly backed up, and flight attendants see it so often on certain routes — including to the Philippines, Egypt and the Dominican Republic, for which sometimes a dozen people in wheelchairs will be waiting to board — they’ve dubbed them “miracle flights.”
“We’d say there was a miracle because they all needed a wheelchair getting on, but not getting off,” said Kelly Skyles, a flight attendant and the national safety and security coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines attendants. “Not only do we serve them beverages and ensure their safety — now we’re healing the sick.”
The actual reason, she guessed, is that passengers in wheelchairs are the first to board but the last to debark, meaning what is a shortcut on one end is a time-waster on the other end. As a result, wheelchairs brought to the arrival gate, one for each passenger who used one during boarding, are left unused as their intended occupants walk by. When flying, personal wheelchairs are usually checked like baggage. The ubiquitous airport chairs, pushed by uniformed attendants, are provided by airlines upon request for free, as mandated by the federal Air Carrier Access Act, the 1986 law requiring accommodations for disabled travelers. But the wheelchairs are unlike handicapped parking spaces, which require a permit: airlines as a rule do not ask for proof of disability.
“We respect our passengers, and we trust their integrity when they seek wheelchair assistance,” said Jean Medina, the spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an industry trade organization, via e-mail. “And we hope that the service would not be abused for convenience.”
While wheelchair users face the same T.S.A. rigmarole as other passengers, their trip through security is often expedited.
There are no statistics to show how many people request wheelchairs at airports each year, but only a small percentage of those travelers appear to be engaged in deceit. The airport employees in charge of pushing wheelchairs estimated that in some weeks they will assist about a dozen passengers who claim wheelchairs they do not need. Sometimes the fraud happens in plain sight: a customer waiting in line will suddenly request a chair after seeing one whiz through security, said Evelyn Danquah, a wheelchair pusher for Delta Air Lines. The more dramatic will suddenly start walking with a limp.
“When they see that the line is so long,” she said, “they just ask for a wheelchair.”
Ms. Danquah said their recoveries can happen just as quickly: almost as soon as security is cleared, some stand up and walk off. At first it shocked her, she said, but she explained that now she was used to it.
Dubinder Kaur, another wheelchair attendant for Delta, agreed: “They say, ‘Ma’am, I feel better — I can go by myself.’ ”
As security checks have become increasingly stringent, the number of people exploiting the loophole seems to have risen, said Peter Greenberg, the travel editor for CBS News and the author of a dozen books on travel. He said it was common to see departure gates full of wheelchairs, especially in places like Palm Beach, where populations are older. Once the plane has taxied to the gate in Florida, however, many supposedly injured passengers exit on foot. The ends-justify-the-means approach may work, Mr. Greenberg said, but to his mind fakers pay another price.
“I’m a big believer in karma,” he said. “You don’t put on a dress when the Titanic is going down so you can get in the first lifeboat.”
Identifying abuse is difficult, because not all disabilities are visible. Some older passengers who are able to walk short distances, for example, may not be able to stand for the long periods sometimes required in security lines. Still, said Helena Berger, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Association of People With Disabilities, “Generally speaking, if you’re using a wheelchair, you’re using it based on a mobility need.”
“That would be something that you could usually see,” she added.
Attendants, many of whom sit idle for long periods of time waiting for a customer, are, in a sense, encouraged to look the other way when a healthy person requests wheelchair service. Most earn between $9 and $14 an hour and rely heavily on tips.
At Heathrow Airport in London in late September, some customers in wheelchairs carried giant carry-on bags on their laps as they wheeled to board a Virgin Atlantic flight to New York. Wheelchair pushers say they see the ability to schlep a huge bag as a possible indicator that someone does not truly need assistance.
Indeed, upon landing in New York, though six wheelchairs were waiting at the off-ramp — airlines order one for every wheelchair-using customer who boards — only four were used.
“By the time you get out of the plane, your pains can be gone,” said Roy Sanichara, 20, one of the wheelchair attendants who waited fruitlessly for an expected customer, as he wheeled an empty chair back through the terminal. He said he believed his passengers, usually. “But sometimes they play tricks, too.”
Anybody faking it because they don't want to wait? OMG, I hate you, I really, really hate you. But, I have to admit kinda side-eyeing things like the bit about people suddenly out of nowhere developing a limp - I've had times where I'm trucking along just fine and suddenly mid-step everything goes terribly wrong, so that's not an automatic tell. But still. If you're faking, I hate you.