Former flight attendant says some passengers abuse wheelchair use at airports

By Louis Bolden - Investigative Reporter

With airport screening lines getting longer, programs including Clear and TSA PreCheck are making the process faster. However some flight attendants say passengers are also using a less ethical way to beat the lines.

Former flight attendant Christi Herrero has seen her share of airports, long lines and people requesting wheelchairs who don't actually need them.

"They want them in the beginning of the flight so that they don't have to stand in line at security," Herrero said. "And they can be the first person to board the plane if it's an airline that has open seating."

Herrero worked for United Airlines for seven years and is comfortable talking about the issue because she is no longer in the industry.

"I would say it's abused like service animals are abused," Herrero said, referring to the unusual service animals in recent months from emotional support squirrels to peacocks.

Other flight attendants and wheelchair attendants spoke with News 6 about the sneaky practice, but declined to go on camera or have their names used because their employers don't allow them to speak with the news media.

Law requires airlines to provide assistance

The Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 requires airlines "to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning and making connections." To comply with the law, airlines offer the chairs to anyone who requests them and proof of disability is not required. 

The misuse is so common it has several names among those in the industry, including "miracle flights" and "jetway Jesus." 

Herrero said the telltale sign is the number of empty wheelchairs at an arriving flight. If a wheelchair is requested on a departure, the airline automatically sends the same number of chairs to that flight's destination. If a chair is empty, it means the person who requested it on the front end, walked off the plane at their destination. Hence the term "miracle flights."

"They needed the wheelchair on the front end of the flight," Herrero said. "When they exit the aircraft they don't need the wheelchair anymore, so miraculously they're healed."

At Orlando International Airport News 6 spotted a number of wheelchair attendants going down the jetway to collect people on a recent flight, but coming back without passengers.

"They said there was nobody on there, nobody that needed a chair," said one attendant who came back with an empty chair. Herrero suspects that happens because while a wheelchair allows you to board the plane first, if you need wheelchair assistance when the plan lands, you're the last to get off.

There are other plausible reasons people could have for needing a wheelchair on one leg of a flight but not the other, like people who can't stand for long periods in long security lines, or walk the long distance in larger airports.

Another wheelchair attendant explained their wages are so low they never question their customers. 

"As long as they tip me I don't care," one worker said.

Kevin Walker, with the Center for Independent Living, in Central Florida said the trend is concerning.

"They are taking that away from someone who might have a disability who might need those services who might need to actually get on the plane first," Walker said.

Airports don't track the number of people who request wheelchairs, because it is handled through the airlines, according to a spokesperson with Orlando International Airport.

Walker did point out that disabilities are not always visible. There is no way to know how often the system is misused. However, if the system is abused, it could lead to those with actual disabilities facing heavier scrutiny, Walker said.

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