By Jay Ratliff
Recently, airlines have seen a drastic increase in the number of wheelchair requests. In fact, 25 passengers requested wheelchair assistance on one recent Southwest Airlines flight. And these numbers are growing.
As we study the question of why more wheelchairs are being requested, immediately two questions come to mind: Are we seeing a growing number of passengers with physical limitations flying? Or is it simply that shrewd but unethical passengers are trying to find new ways to board the plane before everyone else?
The answer seems clear to me when a flight with 25 passengers who require assistance to board turns into an arriving flight in which only five need the service. In the airline industry, we call these “Jesus flights” because so many passengers seem to be “healed” during their flight. Obviously, many passengers are simply trying to take advantage of the preferential treatment that people in wheelchairs receive to board early. It has become so popular that we continue to see social media clips of passengers who are faking an injury just for the perks, and that only increases the awareness.
Airlines are still short staffed in many areas, and having such a presence of passengers needing assistance at the gate puts many flights in jeopardy of departing late. Late flights mean reduced operating profit, but there is only so much that can be done to fix the problem.
The easiest way to immediately fix the problem is to have those requiring more time to board go last. Yes, after everyone else has boarded. This would remove the temptation for those who are faking an injury and would mean far fewer wheelchair requests.
The problem with this is the Department of Transportation mandates that airlines board those requiring additional time first. Absent a change, this boarding backlog is only going to get worse — much worse.
Airlines will continue to reduce the number of scheduled flights this summer, and with an increasing number of flyers, that means the flights still operating will be more packed than ever. American Airlines is scheduled to cancel nearly 50,000 flights from its summer schedule.
This added delay in boarding is not being missed by airline frequent fliers, who continue to complain about the misuse of the wheelchair policy. When loyal customers talk, airline management feels a greater urgency to address and fix the problem.
In the meantime, look for more delayed flights and misery. The social media stories will continue to go viral as more and more people brag about how they put one over on the airlines simply by faking an injury.