Abuse Of Airport Wheelchair Services Is ‘rampant’ And Costly, Says Frontier Airlines CEO | Old North State Wealth News
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Abuse of airport wheelchair services is ‘rampant’ and costly, says Frontier Airlines CEO

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Frontier CEO Barry Biffle identified a new problem plaguing his discount airline: too many passengers exploiting accessibility services, costing it precious time and money.

“There is massive, rampant abuse of special services,” he said at a Thursday lunch in New York, CNBC reported. “There are people using wheelchair assistance who don’t need it at all.”

Biffle said ahead of one Frontier flight, he saw 20 passengers board the aircraft with a wheelchair, while only three deboarded using the same accessibility service. Each wheelchair use costs the airline between $30 and $35, and Biffle argued that abusers of the service are hindering those who really need it. 

“Everyone should be entitled to it who needs it, but you park in a handicapped space they will tow your car and fine you,” he told CNBC. “There should be the same penalty for abusing these services.”

Passengers using a wheelchair during travel have been protected by the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, which mandates the provision of wheelchairs to disabled aircraft passengers. In February, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced a proposed rule to expand those rights, providing additional training to those assisting disabled passengers and cracking down on airlines that damage wheelchairs in transit. 

In a statement to Fortune, a Frontier spokesperson said passengers abusing the wheelchair system are doing so to “move to the front of security lines and obtain priority boarding on flights” and called for a “wheelchair registration or verification system” as well as laws cracking down on the issue and penalties to those abusing the accessibility option.

Frontier has struggled through the past three years of COVID-affected travel, with share prices dropping 70% to about $5.70 since the company went public in early 2021. While the end of the pandemic was supposed to be a boon for the travel industry, budget airlines like Frontier have been unable to cash in on the demand because of operational limitations. Frontier in particular struggled with air traffic controller shortages. 

In 2022, Frontier dropped out of its race against JetBlue to buy Spirit Airlines, a deal that was blocked by judges and ultimately scrapped over antitrust concerns. On May 17, the airline announced it would offer new fare bundles and drop some cancellation fees after the Department of Transportation issued a ruling calling for airlines to be more transparent with “junk fees.”

Airline accessibility flash points

Biffle’s comments about misused wheelchair services mirror those made by London Heathrow Airport boss John Holland-Kaye in July 2022, when he said TikTok “travel hacks” advised passengers to use wheelchairs to fast-pass lines, delaying disabled passengers from getting to their gates.

“Please don’t do that. We need to protect the service for the people who need it most,” then-CEO Holland-Kaye told London’s LBC. 

Brexit-induced travel chaos and staff shortages also exacerbated delays for wheelchair-users at Heathrow.

But the aviation industry hasn’t always had the best track record in accommodating disabled customers. Cory Lee, a travel blogger and wheelchair user, told CBS MoneyWatch that navigating air travel while disabled is the part of travel he “[dreads] the most out of anything.” His $40,000 electric wheelchair is damaged about half the time he travels via aircraft.

“I’ve had so many terrible experiences on planes and in airports being transferred out of my wheelchair,” he said.

Others have had similar experiences. In June 2022, wheelchair user Victoria Brignell was reportedly stranded on a plane for over an hour and a half after it landed because staff from the London Gatwick Airport didn’t show up to help her disembark. After Brignell was accommodated, she said she saw passengers at the departure gate still waiting to board, as they were delayed by her own deplaning complications. It was a case study in the lack of infrastructure for assisting those with accessibility needs, she told Business Insider.

“If you improve services for disabled people, you improve them for everybody,” she said. “And you can see that here by the next flight being delayed by an hour and a half.”

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