Is preboarding travelers with disabilities a good thing or not?

A former airline executive complains that people are faking it to board early

Ed Tobias avatar

by Ed Tobias |

Share this article:

Share article via email
banner for

Boarding an aircraft before others is a small benefit to being a disabled flyer. For years, giving me a small start to get down the jetway ahead of even the most frequent of frequent flyers has given me time to get off the little scooter I use due to my multiple sclerosis (MS), remove its battery, and hopefully snag the attention of the flight attendant to help with carry-on luggage and the battery.

With luck, my two canes and I will be able to slowly get through the cabin door and into my seat ahead of the thundering herd. It can be a contest, however, because gate attendants often wait only a minute or two before they allow others to rush down the ramp behind me.

Is this a problem?

I just read an article by a former airline executive who thinks it might be a good idea to turn the tables and have people with disabilities board last, rather than first. In an opinion piece in The Hill, Jay Ratliff — who says he spent over 20 years in management at Northwest/Republic Airlines — says more and more people are faking disabilities and injuries, creating a serious problem. In particular, he points to a Southwest Airlines flight where 25 passengers requested wheelchair assistance to board, but far fewer requested a wheelchair when the flight arrived at its destination.

Apparently, people in the airline industry say someone who does this is being healed by a “Jetway Jesus,” suddenly regaining the ability walk again while in flight.

John Morris, who writes the Wheelchair Travel blog, believes the Jetway Jesus phenomenon is overblown. But as airlines have reduced flights and those flights have become more and more crowded, boarding has become more of a challenge. And overblown or not, Ratliff says this problem is being noticed by the people who board right behind people with disabilities — the airlines’ first-class and frequent flyers — and they’re not happy.

“When loyal customers talk, airline management feels a greater urgency to address and fix the problem,” Ratliff writes.

Recommended Reading
MRI

How to survive an MRI if you are claustrophobic

Is there a solution?

Ratliff says that “the easiest way to immediately fix the problem is to have those requiring more time to board go last.” He adds that, “This would remove the temptation for those who are faking an injury and would mean far fewer wheelchair requests.”

Really, Mr. Ratliff?

This might work on an airline with reserved seating, or if people with a disability could be guaranteed a seat near the front of the plane, but that would be horrible on an airline that has a first-come-first-seated policy. My two canes and I would never be able to shuffle very far down the aisle. And if I had to wait until everyone else had boarded before driving the scooter to the cabin door and getting it ready for the cargo bin, I’d probably delay the departure.

What, me worry?

Fortunately, people with disabilities don’t have to worry for now — sort of.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights mandates that airlines give a person with a disability “the opportunity to board before all other passengers.” However, there’s a loophole for those open-seating airlines. They may board someone with a disability “after an initial group of passengers have boarded, but early in the boarding process.”

If those airlines were to do that, it could be a significant problem for those of us who need that extra time. It could also be a problem for the airlines. Imagine the disruption that could be caused by a number of folks who have trouble walking trying to find seats after that “initial group of passengers” is on board.

What do you think about this issue? Please let me know in the comments below. You’re also invited to visit my personal blog at www.themswire.com.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

Andrew Scott avatar

Andrew Scott

I understand how loading last might deter people who don't really need help to board. It's not just not knowing where you'd get a seat but where your overhead bag might end up I.e. not overhead! We flew to Duba a couple of years ago and a family had requested a wheelchair for a child, who ended up not appearing to actually need it, meanwhile my assistance wheelchair didn't arrive. It was fairly clear they hoped to get through security quicker. You can only board last if the seat you'd have gotten on a board first basis is still available and overhead baggage is guaranteed.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Good points, Andrew. Thanks for sharing.

Ed

Reply
Stephanie Billings avatar

Stephanie Billings

Maybe the airlines need to rethink how boarding is done for handicapped people. I have MS and currently board early. I have never encountered these issues on any airlines. However, we now fly first class and board first anyway. When I could still walk even with a cane or walking sticks I never had any trouble. I don’t think it’s the airlines it is more likely unhappy passengers.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Stephanie,

Ah, to have the pleasure of First Class. I haven't flown up front since my business travel days. Unfortunately, a lot of people with a disability do have problems, as evidenced by some of the other comments here, and I wish the airlines were more attuned to this.

Ed

Reply
Laura Sorger avatar

Laura Sorger

Simple solution. Just like having to have your physician complete a form for handicapped plates or a placard to park in a handicapped spot, create a handicap card for early boarding that you need to have your physician sign off on.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Laura -

I like that. Of course, there are people who get their physician to sign-off on a disability form in order to get a handicapped tag or plate for their car, so I'm sure there would be some of that. Overall, though, a good idea for aircraft access and seating.

Ed

Reply
Elizabeth M avatar

Elizabeth M

Currently, it is against the Americans with Disabilities Act for businesses to question or contest your disability.

Reply
rick Sommers avatar

rick Sommers

happy to read your words Ed and then often appalled at the number of people who fake disability to help ease the boarding procedure. It reminds me Of people who park in handicap spaces At the store because they have a placard hanging from their mirror that belongs to Grandma, who's not even in the car with them.. and the guy in New York City who actually asked me how he could get one of those nifty disability parking passes like I had so I told him I would gladly trade him my pass and my MS for his mobility and less stressful life.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hey Rick,

Great to hear from you. I had an experience similar to yours several years ago in Rome. My wife, my scooter and I were taken to the head of a long line waiting to enter the Vatican. As we did some guy said to me something like "I wish I could do that," to which I responded (wanna trade?)

Ed

Reply
Lisa Grech avatar

Lisa Grech

Thank you for this article, Ed. It highlights why consultation with of people with lived experience across a range of functional levels is so important before changes are made. I'm a person with MS who is not a wheelchair user and will admit that when I read the first part of your story I was thinking boarding last sounds like an appropriate solution to distinguish the people who really need time/assistance/modification from those who do not. Having read to the end now, it is clear that it is not an appropriate solution or at least needs a lot more thought.

As I was pondering the issue further, it also occurred to me that having people with a disability board last makes a spectacle of their board experience, which is not appropriate either.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Lisa,

Thanks for your comments. I wonder if any airline has ever hired someone with a disability to consult with when determining how to best deal with handicapped flyers. My gut feeling is the corporate execs would really not have to deal with us at all.

Ed

Reply
Ann avatar

Ann

I have MS and can walk but only slowly and, more and more, with difficulty. I have used the wheelchair service at airports for about 10 years. Once the wheelchair didn’t meet my flight upon arrival so I decided to try to walk to baggage claim and fell down. I have never been aware of anyone faking a disability to get early boarding but I haven’t flown since Covid hit so maybe things have changed since then. I have experienced someone taking advantage of a wheelchair that was there for me so that I had to wait to deplane until another chair arrived. Having disabled passengers board last is a cruel idea. Most of us would have difficulty maneuvering down the aisles with canes if we are able to walk at all. Sitting closer to the front of the plane doesn’t allow me to deplane quicker; I usually wait until all able bodied people deplane and make sure the wheelchair is there for me. Anyone who would fake disability to gain boarding advantage is obviously a cheat and they exist in all walks of life and activities. To make truly disabled people suffer because others cheat is ridiculous.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Ann,

I agree with everything you say. I have seen people in wheelchairs who didn't seem to require them but, of course, MS can be an invisible disability. I always try to sit in the coach bulkhead aisle, tell flight attendants when I board that I would appreciate their "accommodating" (a word specifically chosen) my need to use the closer rest room in First Class, and then wait to deplane until all others have left and I'm sure my scooter has been brought to the door. Boarding after others would be hard for me and for all who would follow me. Boarding last? Fuggeduhboudit.

Ed

Reply
Ray Petit avatar

Ray Petit

My wife has progressive MS and on any vacation, the flight gives her the most anxiety and concern if her power chair will make it in one piece. On a recent flight to Miami, we told the airlines that an aisle chair was necessary, as my wife can’t stand. We always get to the terminal very early and reinforce that an aisle chair is needed. We were reassured that one was requested. When it was time for early boarding, the aisle chair still didn’t arrive. When the aisle chair was located they were doing general boarding. The gate attendant halted the boarding process while she was pushed onto the plane, as other passengers were trying to find their seats and store their luggage in the overhead bins. Unfortunately for this flight, she was in the center seat in a row of three seats. It became a bit of an embarrassing operation as they had to ask the person in the aisle seat to get up and move as well as the people in the row behind so that they could physically lift her out of the aisle chair and position her in the center seat. I should add that the other passengers were kind and understanding, but it brought attention to someone, who doesn’t seek it and just wants to be treated like everyone else. It works best if we are the first ones on the plane and the last to deplane.

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Ray,

That's a horrible experience for you and your wife. The airlines sometimes just don't seem to "get it." I certainly understand your wife's anxiety about her power chair. A colleague of mine has had his broken by the airlines more than once. Broken and lost chairs are now required to be reported to the U.S. government but I don't think the requirement has helped the situation any. I hope you reported your wife's aisle chair problem to the corporate execs on whatever airline you were flying.

Ed

Reply
Elizabeth M avatar

Elizabeth M

I guess I might be mistaken for a Jetway Jesus. My Ms causes fatigue and difficulty walking long distances at times. I use my cane while I travel, and request wheelchair service. It’s particularly difficult for me to stand for extended times ( I also use a wheelchair when I go to museums.)
There is much more standing and waiting when going through security and boarding. But if I know the airport isn’t large and I can get to the baggage claim without assistance that day, sometimes I walk once I get to my destination. We know what works for us and individual, invisible disabilities have a lot of variability.

Reply

Leave a comment

Fill in the required fields to post. Your email address will not be published.

Damian Washington video 2 thumbnail