Abuse of wheelchair services at airports is ‘rampant’ and costing Frontier Airlines, CEO says

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

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

Biffle said that before a Frontier flight, he saw 20 passengers board the plane in wheelchairs, while only three disembarked using the same accessibility service. Each wheelchair use costs the airline between $30 and $35, and Biffle argued that those who abuse the service are hindering those who really need it.

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

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

In a statement to FortuneA Frontier spokesperson said passengers who abuse the wheelchair system do so to “get in front of security lines and gain priority boarding on flights” and called for a “check-in or check-in system for wheelchairs.” wheels,” as well as laws that crack down on the problem and sanctions for those who abuse the accessibility option.

Frontier has struggled over the past three years of COVID-affected travel, with stock prices falling 70% to about $5.70 since the company went public in early 2021. While the end of The pandemic would be a boon for the travel industry, budget airlines like Frontier have been unable to capitalize on demand due to operational limitations. Frontier, in particular, struggled with a shortage of air traffic controllers.

In 2022, Frontier abandoned 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 packages and eliminate some cancellation fees after the Department of Transportation issued a ruling calling on airlines to be more transparent about “junk fees.”

Critical airline accessibility points

Biffle’s comments about the misuse of wheelchair services mirror those made by London Heathrow Airport boss John Holland-Kaye in July 2022, when he said TikTok’s “travel tricks” advised passengers using wheelchairs to move ahead of queues, delaying disabled passengers in reaching their doors.

“Please don’t do that, we need to protect the service for the people who need it most,” then-chief executive 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 when it comes to serving disabled customers. Cory Lee, a travel blogger and wheelchair user, told CBS MoneyWatch that traveling by plane while disabled is the part of the trip he “dreads more than anything.” His $40,000 electric wheelchair breaks down about half the time he travels by plane.

“I have had many terrible experiences on airplanes and airports when being transferred from my wheelchair,” he said.

Others have had similar experiences. In June 2022, wheelchair user Victoria Brignell was stranded on a plane for more than an hour and a half after landing because staff at London Gatwick airport did not show up to help her off. After Brignell was seated, she said she saw passengers at the gate still waiting to board, as they were delayed by their own complications disembarking. It was a case study of the lack of infrastructure to help those with accessibility needs, she said. Business Insider.

“If services are improved for disabled people, they will be improved for everyone,” he said. “And you can see here that the next flight is delayed by an hour and a half.”

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