“Miracle Flights”: More Air Travel Cheating

I wondered about this.

“If you don’t tell anyone that I won a Silver in the Olympic hurdles this summer, there’s 50 bucks in it for you… Deal?”

When I was recovering from a hip replacement, and even before, when it was getting painful to walk, I requested wheel chairs from the airlines when I had to fly. It was wonderful. A nice attendant whisked me in front of the lines and through security, and I was also the first person on the plane. Nobody ever asked me what was the nature of my disability; they just trusted that I wouldn’t engage in such a dastardly act as to fake being hobbled—you know, just like nobody would pretend to be someone else to steal a vote. Never happens—why do anything to  check? The system—I mean the wheelchair system, now, not the voting honor system—seemed ripe for abuse to me, but before today, I had never heard of anyone exploiting it.

According to a recent report, a lot of people do. The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines  to accommodate disabled travelers free of charge, and they do not need not show any proof of disability. This was just one of a long line of badly-thought out, wasteful, well-intentioned and incompetent laws and regulations forced on us by lobbies for the handicapped/disabled/differently-abled or whatever we are now being told the only respectful term is—but I digress.

The report quoted airline employees from several companies. The consensus is that the incidence of flyer faking disabilities to get wheelchair service and line priority has risen as airport security procedures have become more rigorous. Meanwhile, wheelchair attendants don’t blow the whistle on their fake chair-riders so they can get big tips. Flight attendants have a name for trips that end with a passenger who arrived in a wheelchair sprinting out the jetway on his own power: miracle flights.

How amusing. Once again, as with the foolish checked baggage charges and free gate-checked luggage procedures, the airlines are breeding cheaters with no apparent attempt at prevention, detection or penalties. “I’m a big believer in karma,” Peter Greenberg, author and travel editor for CBS News, replied when asked for his solution. “You don’t put on a dress when the Titanic is going down so you can get in the first lifeboat.” Thanks for your input, Peter: you’re fired. I don’t believe in karma; I believe in sensible rules that don’t provide incentives to cheat.

Since we’re not going to stop Congress from passing bad laws that come from the soft, sweet, nougat center of their dear little hearts, the airlines should offer solid bounties to wheelchair attendants who finger the fakes. Flight attendants should get the name of everyone who arrives in a wheelchair, and turn that name over to the police when and if he runs off the flight shouting, “Glory be! I’m cured!

Yes, I believe that ethics alone should be enough to stop the wheelchair scammers, but I also know that there are a lot of shameless, dishonest people among us. For the airlines to shrug and leave the rest of us to their mercy is indefensible.


Source: CBS News

Graphic: But You Don’t Look Sick

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

24 thoughts on ““Miracle Flights”: More Air Travel Cheating

  1. Eh. I’m sure some people do cheat – but I’m also sure that some people who the article implies are cheaters, aren’t doing anything of the sort.

    I’m not usually bothered by the five-minute walk from when I get out of security to my gate in the Portland airport. But standing on the security line is much harder. First of all, it can easily take up to 20 minutes if the airport is crowded, so I’m standing for much longer. And even if it’s only five minutes, standing still (with occasional shuffling) is just much, much harder on me than walking is. My bad knee and heel, normally slight nuisances that I ignore while walking, sometimes scream with pain waiting on line.

    In 20 years time, if my body keeps on degrading, I could easily imagine myself requesting a wheelchair for the security line, but standing up and walking once I’m past it – not because I’ll be cheating, but because I’ll genuinely be incapable of standing on a security line for 20 minutes without unreasonable pain and misery (or not at all), but nonetheless capable of walking for five minutes to my gate.

    Similarly, according to the article it sometimes happens that someone seated near the front of the plane will use a wheelchair to board the plane, but walk off the plane without a chair. But boarding an airplane is simply harder work than deboarding, if you’re sitting near the front! When you board the plane, everyone lines up in single file and shuffles, shuffles, shuffles at an extremely slow speed along the jetway. It normally takes five to ten minutes, and if several passengers are slowed down by hard- to-stow baggage it can take even longer.

    In contrast, if you’re near the front of the plane, deboarding requires a one-minute walk down the jetway to the airport – a trip which requires far less leg strength and endurance. There’s no reason to assume that someone who is capable of deboarding by themselves, is capable of boarding by themselves just as easily.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that some people do cheat (although judging from the article, those people are probably a very small percentage of all passengers). But I’m also sure that some of those ablebodied airport workers who are so sure that people who sometimes use a chair and sometimes walk are cheaters, are just being ignorant and judgmental.

    • Great point. I decided not to mention it, but it seems to me that a partial solution would be to charge something for the privilege, like the current cost of checking a bag. Would you object to that? It would probably not dissuade many cheaters, but some, and at least they would be partially paying for their deception.

      This is a Comment of the Day–I won’t be able to post it until later, because I’m running out the door.

      • I decided not to comment, but my thoughts on this post ran along the same lines as what Ampersand managed to say much more eloquently than I would have.

        Personally, I would object to your suggestion, just as in general I would object to any proposal that charges for accomodations for the disabled that do not have an other than minimal additional cost to the organization providing them. Charging doesn’t divide the pool of protential users into those who really need it and those who don’t. It divides it into those who can afford it, and those who can’t.

        Obviously this is a continuum rather than a sharp divide – the question for an individual boils down to weighing the need/desire for the accommodation against the cost. But the location of the tipping point on the scale – the point where benefit meets cost – is determined not by the need of the individual, but by their means.

        • I’m in agreement general agreement, but you’re a little too glib with downplaying the difference even nominal cost can generate in unnecessary usage. Studies have found that if you offer someone a candy bar for free, they’ll almost definitely take it, but if you offer them a candy bar for a penny, most won’t go for it. A penny is essentially nothing, but there’s a psychological hurdle that comes into play when money is involved.

          Again, I’m against requiring payment for the same reason you are (the haves/have nots argument), but that doesn’t mean that a tiny payment wouldn’t actually cut down significantly on cheating.

      • I would indeed object to that. I don’t like the idea of punishing genuinely disabled people with extra fees, just to make the cheaters pay an extra fee.

        Also, as a matter of practicality, I believe your plan would lead to more cheaters, not fewer cheaters. I can’t find a link, so take this with a grain of salt, but I recall a study of a preschool that instituted fees for parents who were late picking up their kids. To the school’s surprise, parents became more likely to be late once they knew they could pay a fee; the fee enabled them to be late without feeling guilty or worrying about consequences (beyond the fee itself). They began to feel that being late was something they had a right to; after all, they were paying the fee.

        • I didn’t say it was my plan; I agree that it probably wouldn’t stop cheating, and might, as you say, even increase it. But at least they’d be paying something for their scam.

          I have never understood the theory that disabilities excuse citizens from having to pay the costs of their special problems. Would you argue that the airlines should be prevented from charging a 400 pound man for the extra cost of a First Class ticket? Why not? Should seeing eye dogs be provided free of charge? Should dwarves be provided publicly-financed ladders? Should well-endowed women have their custom-made bras paid for by taxpayers? Should we pay for the plastic surgery for the hideously deformed, until they are properly gorgeous? Should Kirstie Alley’s liposuction be publicly financed? The whole warped idea is one more feature of The Curse of Jimmy Carter.

          • *sigh*. Equal availability is very different than something free. In the case of the wheelchairs, the airlines tend to require that passenger wheelchairs and walkers be checked luggage. As such, these passengers lose their mode of transportation, and it makes sense for the airlines to accomodate them.

            At first glance, it seems that the accomodation could be limited to those that actually checked wheelchairs, but due to the hassle, some disabled people don’t bring their chair to the airport, and use a second chair, borrowed chair, or rented chair at their destination. It really wouldn’t be equal accomodation to have them pay at the airport as well.

          • Yes, but most of the people “paying something” would not be cheaters. And I notice that your suggestion doesn’t require that you pay anything.

            My suggestion is that, when passengers buy a ticket, passengers will be asked to check a box if they want some passengers to pay an extra fee in order to prevent other passengers from cheating by using a wheelchair without need. Those who check off “yes” will be charged an extra $80 for a round-trip, which will go to a fund to reduce cheating.

            If next to nobody would volunteer to pay the fee, as I’m sure would be the case, then only inexpensive anti-cheating measures will be used, such as printing a notice in tiny print on the boarding pass asking people not to ask for wheelchairs unless they have a need for one, But more expensive measure can be used if a large number of passengers are willing to pay for it.

            The benefit of this plan is that the only people paying for it, will be people who genuinely find it worthwhile to pay extra for the pleasure of knowing that there’s an anti-cheating measure in place. That seems fair.

            I have never understood the theory that disabilities excuse citizens from having to pay the costs of their special problems.

            Well, first of all, what TGT says. Since the airlines won’t let people use their own wheelchairs, it seems fair that they provide loaners.

            Secondly, I’d say that I want to live in a society which is broadly accessible to people whose bodies come in a lot of different shapes and conditions. I think that’s a better society than one which makes no accommodations.

  2. What would constitute proof of disability? For years I’ve worked in a cubicle job but need a cane to walk any distance greater than ten feet. No disability or other paperwork that would validate that standing still, even with a cane, longer than about ten minutes puts me in livid pain. Thirty and I collapse. But short distances with rails or doorways for balance like debarking and I’m fine.
    The problem with tightening rules is that screens out some fakes, but also some people with valid problems.

    • “Tightening”? That’s a charitable description. It’s like saying that tellers should stop people from just walking in and taking money out of their drawers is “tightening” the rules.

      I do not endorse the argument that society and private companies have an obligation to not only eliminate the inconveniences and hardships of disability, but also provide advantageous favoritism. Public accommodations should be accessible. Agreed. The law requires too much, and thus people take advantage of it.

      • Not a parallel situation. The tellers rules apply equally to all and affect everyone equally. Moreover, open access to the money has a much deeper risk than wheelchair availability.

  3. I suspect that not trying to catch cheaters is the result of an informal risk calculation by the airlines. Let a thousand cheaters go, and only curmudgeonly ethics bloggers will complain, but falsely accuse one actual disabled person of cheating, and it makes the morning news shows, hundreds of bloggers complain about unfeeling corporations, a YouTube folksong about the incident goes viral, and your CEO is asked about it by a Congressional committee.

  4. This seems very similar to a problem that Disneyland has – they offer health passes to people for whom standing in a line – or navigating a wheelchair through tiny spaces – proves problematic. Unfortunately, especially on the older rides, people have noticed that the line is MUCH shorter when you have a health pass, and Disney doesn’t usually check to see how legit the claim is. As it is, the abuse of the system is causing the company to review its policies, and a system intended to enable everyone to enjoy themselves is likely on the chopping block.

    • My wife was the beneficiary of Disney’s kindness when she sprained her ankle BADLY. Even as we were given royal treatment with her, we felt like absolute GARBAGE being let in front of everyone. Immediately I was astounded that the kindness hadn’t been completely destroyed by scammers.

      I have seen signs in amusement park lines saying things like (30 minutes from this point.) Perhaps they can look at the sign closest in from the end of the line and require a wait that long? The handicapped person gets a 15 minute break tops.

  5. Didn’t I send this to you last week? I put the emphasis on the lack of ethics in abusing the loophole. I don’t see an ethical failure in creation of this loophole.

  6. Pingback: No-Nothing Ablebodied People Suspect Disability Is A Scam | Alas, a Blog

  7. If we were taking a vote, I vote for what we have right now. Status quo. I don’t think you can eliminate the benefit and I would object to requiring a fee. There are too many medical situations that I wouldn’t trust an airline to determine what is acceptable and what is not. Keep in mind that not every disability is external and not every airport requires the same amount of effort for navigation.

  8. Pingback: Know-Nothing Ablebodied People Suspect Disability Is A Scam « Family Scholars

  9. Pingback: “Miracle Flights”: More Air Travel Cheating | Ethics Alarms | Tourism 4All | Scoop.it

  10. As someone who cannot stand in line due to back issues (severely herniated L5-S1), but who CAN walk (but not too slowly, or my back compresses almost as if I’m standing still) — I take a wheelchair getting on the plane, or end up crippled by the time I board. I don’t need it getting off the flight for the reasons already outlined…. I can walk off the plane relatively easily — although I often frustrate people if I’m not in the very front, because I’ll sit where I am until the line is gone and I can move at a decent enough clip to not trigger the disc. I would imagine that some flight staff on seeing me wheeled in, and walking off quickly after landing would presume I’m “cheating” — but the reality is that I simply cannot stand in one place for more than a couple of minutes without my back going out and my legs collapsing under me. I’m not going to volunteer to do a face plant on boarding, and be in pain for days afterward, simply to avoid the responses of judgmental twits who don’t have all the facts, but feel like they should be able to make assumptions about others anyway.

    I get enough grief from family and friends who have issues that make them walk slowly (which I cannot do without causing myself pain) getting frustrated when I walk off ahead, and then back to them and then ahead, and then back to them in order to keep moving at a pace that keeps my back loosened up enough to not compress and have me grabbing something for support and screaming when I get what feels like a lightning bolt hitting my lower back, radiating up my spine and down my left leg, and my right leg going completely numb. The idea that I should set myself up for that experience, because otherwise someone might think I’m “cheating” by using a wheelchair to avoid that result, is ridiculous.

    Sadly, the spate of opinion pieces and articles out there now on this is going to make it more likely that those of us with such issues are going to get grief at the airport — as if we aren’t uncomfortable enough in our own bodies as it is….. so gee, thanks…. and yeah, that was sarcasm.

      • It would be helpful if the critics knew what they were talking about, and were actually able to tell the difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” wheelchair users.

        However, since the critics can’t really tell the difference, I think Kili’s theory is that the critics will end up making things harder on the “legitimate” wheelchair users.

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