Friday, February 22, 2013

Wheelchair miracles at the airport

It happens regularly, airport officials say. A traveler requests a wheelchair, gets pushed to the front of the security line and screened—and then jumps up out of the chair and rushes off into the terminal.

"We call them 'miracles.' They just start running with their heavy carry-ons," said wheelchair attendant Kenny Sanchez, who has been pushing for more than 14 years. ...

The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who requests it. No description or documentation is required.

Airports across the country say more able-bodied travelers have figured out they can use wheelchairs for convenience, making waits a lot longer for travelers with genuine needs.

At Los Angeles International Airport, airlines and companies that provide wheelchair service estimate 15% of all requests are phony, said Lawrence Rolon, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are bogus. ...

Wheelchair-service providers say some passengers running late for a flight will request immediate wheelchair service simply to cut to the front of the security line or to avoid a typical hour-plus wait at Immigration when entering the country. Some just want help with multiple heavy carry-on bags.

Some departing passengers want early boarding privileges and perhaps a seat with extra legroom in the front of the plane, which airlines reserve for passengers with disabilities. Some arriving international passengers see it as a sign of status when an attendant is waiting to greet and guide, even if it's a wheelchair attendant. ...

Sometimes a young, physically fit person will run in and request a chair. A lack of mobility equipment, such as a cane or crutches, might be a tipoff. There's an obvious tell: "People walk in with high heels on and say they need wheelchair service,'' Ms. Strickland says. Travelers with real infirmities almost always wear safer shoes, even if it means carrying nicer shoes in bags, she says. ...

Costs to an airline can reach more than $40 per wheelchair run because an attendant often spends more than an hour on each passenger ...

Abuse adds as much as 20 minutes to the wait for a wheelchair for some disabled passengers at LAX, disability advocates say. The wait at the Tom Bradley International Terminal averages 30 minutes.
--Scott McCartney, WSJ, on shamelessness in travel