It happens regularly, airport officials say. A traveler requests a wheelchair, gets pushed to the front of the security line and screened—and then jumps up out of the chair and rushes off into the terminal.
"We call them 'miracles.' They just start running with their heavy carry-ons," said wheelchair attendant Kenny Sanchez, who has been pushing for more than 14 years.
Wheelchair assistance is a vital, widely used airport service, making travel feasible for the elderly and people with disabilities, injuries or limited capability to navigate long airport distances. The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who requests it. No description or documentation is required.
Airports across the country say more able-bodied travelers have figured out they can use wheelchairs for convenience, making waits a lot longer for travelers with genuine needs.
At Los Angeles International Airport, airlines and companies that provide wheelchair service estimate 15% of all requests are phony, said Lawrence Rolon, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are bogus. "It's just a big mess,'' Mr. Rolon said. "Abusers are really impacting the operation.''
Disability advocates say occasional long waits and potential missed flights are a problem. Last year, disability-issue complaints filed by air travelers with the Department of Transportation jumped a hefty 18.3% (DOT doesn't break out wheelchair issues). Los Angeles issued a reminder four days before Christmas last year that free wheelchair services "should be reserved for persons with disabilities and senior citizens with mobility issues.''
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport says it has had an uptick in reports of wheelchair cheating. Orlando International Airport has worked with staff and skycaps to dissuade use unless reserved in advance. The problem continues there even though the airport's very high volume of wheelchairs tends to cancel any timesaving advantage from making a bogus request. "It is a touchy issue and very difficult and can be sensitive,'' an airport spokeswoman said.
Contractors paid by airlines have to fill wheelchair requests on a first-come basis. So a 1:50 p.m. walk-up request might claim an attendant waiting for a 2 p.m. reservation.
Wheelchair-service providers say some passengers running late for a flight will request immediate wheelchair service simply to cut to the front of the security line or to avoid a typical hour-plus wait at Immigration when entering the country. Some just want help with multiple heavy carry-on bags.
Some departing passengers want early boarding privileges and perhaps a seat with extra legroom in the front of the plane, which airlines reserve for passengers with disabilities. Some arriving international passengers see it as a sign of status when an attendant is waiting to greet and guide, even if it's a wheelchair attendant.
LAX handled nearly 2,000 wheelchair requests a day in 2012, or more than 1.1% of all passengers. The heaviest use is on international arrivals. Nearly 4% of passengers arriving from abroad last year requested wheelchairs. An inbound international flight scheduled to land at LAX with 20 wheelchair requests may see that number balloon to 50 requests at the last minute, officials said.
"Some people are scared when they land so extra help makes them more comfortable,'' said Robert Enriquez, manager of wheelchair service for Aero Port Services Inc. "It causes a lot of strain because that employee could be helping someone else.''
Airline service cuts and rule changes have driven some of the increased wheelchair demand. Some travelers say when they request assistance, an airline gate agent or flight attendant often automatically recommends wheelchair assistance. After airlines began refusing to gate-check large strollers, some mothers with infants resorted to wheelchair service to travel the long distance to a boarding gate with bags and a baby. (Umbrella strollers still can be used in terminals and checked at gates; larger strollers have to go with large suitcases as checked baggage.)
At many big hub airports, airlines do provide motorized carts to help passengers, disabled or not, with long distances. (You can flag one down or ask an airline agent to request a pickup.) Most carts run between gates for connecting flights. American Airlines also offers a paid "Five Star'' escort and assistance service, including access to its Admiral's Club lounges, at nine U.S. and five international airports. The service costs from $125 to $275 for one passenger, depending on the airport, plus $75 for each additional adult and $50 for each additional child.
Angela Strickland, a wheelchair dispatcher at the Southwest Airlines LUV -0.25% terminal at LAX, says questionable requests rise during holidays and other busy periods when lines are long and people worry about missing flights.
How can she tell a legitimate request from a bogus one? Sometimes a young, physically fit person will run in and request a chair. A lack of mobility equipment, such as a cane or crutches, might be a tipoff. There's an obvious tell: "People walk in with high heels on and say they need wheelchair service,'' Ms. Strickland says. Travelers with real infirmities almost always wear safer shoes, even if it means carrying nicer shoes in bags, she says.
Most airlines say they don't have any way to quantify bogus requests because they are barred from asking about need or refusing service. "We do our best to accommodate our customers' needs,'' a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines said.
Costs to an airline can reach more than $40 per wheelchair run because an attendant often spends more than an hour on each passenger. "It's an expense we simply must budget for because the service is vital to customers with disabilities,'' said a Delta Air Lines spokesman.
Abuse adds as much as 20 minutes to the wait for a wheelchair for some disabled passengers at LAX, disability advocates say. The wait at the Tom Bradley International Terminal averages 30 minutes.
Sam Overton, president of the Los Angeles City Commission on Disability and a former California assistant attorney general, says he sometimes waits 20 to 30 minutes for a pusher at the airport. One change he would like to see: First serve those people who made advance wheelchair requests, which are widely seen as legitimate. People who make last-minute requests should be helped after those who reserved chairs, he said.
"It's the dark side of human nature," says Mr. Overton, who has used a wheelchair for 58 years. "There's this mind-set at the airport—this thin veneer of civility. People are focused on themselves and don't think this is a service that other people need."