SPECIAL REPORT: Using wheelchairs to cut in line?

(WTVM) - In airports across the country, passengers are frustrated by the wait to get on the plane.

Now, it appears more and more people are finding a way around the wait, in a wheelchair, and they're not always disabled.

News Leader 9's Chuck Leonard examines this practice, and shows us how some advocates for the disabled have begun blowing the whistle on the cheaters.

Walk through any airport and odds are you'll find yourself not only dodging crowds of people, but navigating around a growing number of wheelchairs.

"We've handled maybe a hundred wheelchairs a year. Now, there are certain times we can handle a hundred wheelchairs in a day," said Peter Scherrer.

Scherrer manages a small airport, but he's not the only one scrambling. One mid-size airport tells us it keeps 300 wheelchairs on hand at all times now. And a large, major facility says it receives two-thousand requests for special assistance every day.

That's partly because more people with disabilities are traveling. But advocates are now blowing the whistle on able-bodied passengers who say they are playing the system to save time.

"People who don't really need special assistance or have a disability sometimes do say they're a person with a disability to go through that special line or to the head of the line to get through security quicker," said Kleo King of the United Spinal Association.

Or on the plane first. It's hard to say officially how many of the wheelchair requests are bogus, but King estimates it at 15 percent nationwide.

That makes Barb Likos, an avid traveler and mom to a special needs child, angry.

"When people abuse the system it makes it harder for my child to access the accommodations that he needs, and it's frustrating and it's rude," said Likos.

But the airlines say they feel grounded when it comes to identifying cheaters. By law, they are required to give assistance to anyone who asks, or risk hefty fines. And they have to be careful what they ask.

"They can ask questions about what do they need for assistance," said King. "They can't ask, 'What is your disability?' and invade people's privacy."

But advocates and airline personnel tell us they're hearing more complaints about so-called 'Miracle Flights.'

"It's a phrase that's coined by a lot of flight attendants," said Scherrer. "They see a person come on with a wheelchair and when they get to the destination, for some reason, they actually are able to walk again."

"If, in fact, you really didn't need assistance, you're not going to keep up the ruse and wait fifteen minutes for wheelchair assistance to get off the plane," said King.

That part really bothers Likos, who believes she has a simple solution.

"I think we need a universal disability pass," Likos said. "It's recognized legitimately throughout all the different places we would travel."

It does exist in other countries, but the Spinal Association says there currently aren't any plans for that here. Meantime, the honor system rules the runway.

"We want to spend more of our time providing the service that you need rather than sitting there trying to figure out if someone's trying to manipulate the system," said Scherrer.

So what should you do if you see someone traveling, who appears to be abusing the disability assistance?

We're told you should do nothing, since disabilities aren't always evident.

The airlines make it clear they want those who truly need the service to use it.   

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