One of the ways that Southwest Airlines differentiates itself from other airlines is that it doesn’t have assigned seating. Passengers are allowed onto the plane based on when they check in for their flight, or if they’ve paid more to be at the front of the queue (Early Bird check in, Upgraded Boarding, or by purchasing a Business Select fare). Once they’re on board, they can sit in whatever open seat they prefer.
Here’s how Southwest describes it:
You will be assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and position (1-60+) upon check in.
- Your unique group and position combination (for example: A35) will be displayed on your boarding pass and represents a reserved spot in the boarding group at the gate.
- Numbered posts in each of our gate areas indicate where to line up.
- When your boarding group is called, find your designated place in line and board the aircraft in numerical order with your boarding group.
However before the A,B,C queue even starts, certain passengers with disabilities are able to preboard at the very beginning of the boarding process, prior to general boarding.
The system had worked fairly well for years. However at some point around the pandemic, the number of people requiring preboarding due to disability not only skyrocketed, but has skewed much younger. And yet, as many passengers have noted, the number of people who needed a wheelchair to disembark from the plane has been, also in recent years, significantly less than those who needed one to board the plane (read: 20 people using wheelchairs enter the plane, 17 of them exit the plane on their own 2 feet. Some people call them, tongue in cheek, “miracle flights”).
Many places said it was a scam developed as a “hack” and advertised on the likes of TikTok:
- Southwest Addresses Wheelchair requests after TokTok Scan Accusation
- Southwest flyers’ wheelchair ‘pre-boarding scam’ leaves fellow passengers fuming
- Are airline passengers faking the need for wheelchairs to board early?
Such “hacks” have been shown on YouTube, as well
People who fake disabilities in order to board the plane faster don’t only do it at the expense of those who are waiting on the regular queues. The third party people who are trained to push those in wheelchairs throughout the airport are in short supply; people using up the services for their own “needs,” forcing those who legitimately need their services to wait. Most people find the act of these scammers/fakers reprehensible.
Of course, some disabilities are invisible. Some people may have difficulty walking the length of an airport to get to the plane but after they’ve sat on a plane for a few hours, they’re able to more easily walk to wherever they’re going. Others would rather walk off the plane, even in pain, because they have another flight to catch and might miss it if they wait for the wheelchair assistance people. It’s also been suggested that more people are willing to speak up and ask for help than before the pandemic. And, of course, since the preboarding group is skewing much younger, well, some younger people with long Covid may really need the wheelchair service; that wouldn’t have been an issue before the pandemic, either.
All that being said, we all know that some people asking to preboard are doing it for legitimate reasons. But it just seems a little suspect that so many more people – especially those flying Southwest – are requiring wheelchair service and pre-boarding nowadays.
What is Southwest’s rule about preboarding?
Southwest’s company line is that they follow federal regulations in offering preboarding to Customers with disabilities in order to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act: https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/passengers-disabilities.
This is what their website says:
Can I preboard?
It depends. Some Customers with disabilities are able to preboard at the very beginning of the boarding process prior to general boarding. Preboarding is available for Customers with disabilities who need a specific seat to accommodate a disability, need assistance boarding the aircraft, or need to stow an assistive device.
A Customer Service Agent at the ticket counter or the departure gate can help with this accommodation, and you’ll be asked questions to determine if you qualify. You’ll receive a new boarding pass marked with PRBD if you qualify, which lets the Operations Agent at boarding know that you can preboard. Remember that you can’t occupy an exit seat if you preboard.
One travel companion may preboard with you. If you feel you need an exception to this, please discuss your needs with a Customer Service Agent at the gate when requesting preboarding.
If you’re preboarding because you need a specific seat, speak with the Operations Agent after getting your new boarding pass but before preboarding starts.
Customers with disabilities who simply need a little extra time to board or otherwise do not qualify for preboarding may board between the “A” and “B” groups, before Family Boarding. A Customer Service Agent at the ticket counter or departure gate can give you a new boarding pass marked with XT, which lets the Operations Agent at boarding know that you can board before Family Boarding.
This rule is clear enough but the observation of many is that it’s not being followed by gate agents. The passengers needing “extra time” have consistently been allowed to board before A List and A Boarding group passengers. If SW followed that guideline, there would be far fewer passengers boarding before A list.
However the main issue is the questions that Southwest asks these passengers who say they need preboarding:
1) do you need assistance boarding the aircraft? and/or
2) do you have a specific seating need to accommodate your disability?
If the answer to either question is yes, they must allow the customer to preboard and they are only able to use these parameters to ascertain the legitimacy of a customer’s preboarding request. So it certainly opens the window for more self-centered people to work the system to their advantage.
A possible fix?
Changing topics for a moment, there’s another realm where disabilities, rules, and being able to “skip the queue” have been issues for years – theme parks.
Obviously, not all theme park rides are accessible for people with all types of disabilities. For example, it might not be safe for someone who doesn’t have control of their muscles from the shoulders down, for example, to go on a roller coaster (most rides have long lists of rules, i.e. “Rider must have full control of trunk, and at least 1 arm/hand and one leg/foot” or something similar; the specifics depend on the ride). But there are plenty of rides people living with disabilities can and do go on.
Each theme park has its own rules about people with disabilities, and sometimes one park will have a few different rules, depending on the ride. For example, some newer rides have queues and cars that are 100% wheelchair accessible and allow those using wheelchairs to go through the entire queue the same as someone without a disability. Others may have queues that are older and not accessible; riders may be allowed through the ride’s exit in order to enter.
There are also some people with specific disabilities that prevent them from standing on lines due to reasons other than wheelchair accessibility. Some may become anxious about, or have other difficulties with standing in lines, or being in crowds, for extended periods of time. Others may have difficulty with staying in an outdoor queue in extreme heat for extended periods of time if they visit during the summer. In recent years, some theme parks have offered guests who have disabilities such as a pass that allows them to “sign in” for a ride, and then come back at a specific time, at which time they could load directly onto the ride. So they’re still waiting, but it’s a virtual wait, instead of a physical one.
Theme parks have to follow similar federal rules in that they’re not allowed to ask many questions about a person’s disability to give them one of these types of passes. However each theme park, since they’re owned by so many different companies, has its own rules. One company has been trying to make it easier for all involved by streamlining that process so it’s the same from theme park to theme park.
IBCCES (The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards) touts themselves as the “global leader in cognitive disorder training and certification.” For over 20 years they’ve provided, “…a series of certifications that empower professionals to be leaders in their field and improve the outcomes for the individuals they serve. These programs are recognized around the world as the leading benchmark for training and certification in the areas of autism and other cognitive disorders.”
In 2021, IBCCES created what they call the IBCCES Accessibility Card (IAC), which is designed to help individuals requesting accommodations at participating theme parks’ attractions. The card is digital and free, and helps identify accommodations needed and expedite the process at parks and attractions.
Requesting accommodations at an attraction can be stressful and frustrating. Luckily, many parks and attractions are providing options so that everyone in the family can still enjoy the fun. The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) created the digital IBCCES Accessibility Card (IAC) as a free resource for individuals who need to request accommodations or assistance at participating amusement parks and attractions.
The IAC is for anyone who is requesting accommodations – including but not limited to individuals who are autistic, use a wheelchair, are blind/low vision, deaf/hard of hearing, have mobility support needs, are accompanied by a service animal, have sensory sensitivities, cognitive disabilities, or have other needs and concerns.
Here’s more about it:
IBCCES says their accessibility card helps streamline the accommodations process and save staff time on-site when providing accessibility services. And best of all, it reduces abuse of the system because it includes verification processes to discourage the abuse of accommodations and ensure the individuals who truly need accommodations can access them.
The IAC card is good for 1 year and is HIPAA compliant. All the user needs is:
- Recent photograph of the cardholder for identification purposes
- Contact information for the cardholder or the parent/guardian/support person of the cardholder
- Contact information and statement from medical provider, government entity, or educational support professional related to accommodations requested (i.e. “I, Dr. Chris Johnson, hereby certify that Jamie Smith requires assistance to board the aircraft and therefore needs to preboard the flight” on Dr. Johnson’s letterhead. Nothing that says what their disability is [that’s why it’s HIPAA compliant]; just certifying that they need assistance to board, and therefore need to preboard.)
To date, the IAC card has been a great success, and has been adopted by:
- Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
- Six Flags Fiesta Texas
- Six Flags Great Adventure
- Six Flags Great America
- Hurricane Harbor Rockford
- Six Flags Darien Lake
- La Ronde
- Six Flags Magic Mountain
- Six Flags Mexico
- Hurricane Harbor Oaxtepec
- Six Flags New England
- Six Flags Over Georgia
- Six Flags Over Texas
- Six Flags St. Louis
- The Great Escape
- Frontier City
- Six Flags Great Escape Lodge & Indoor Waterpark
- Hurricane Harbor OKC
- Hurricane Harbor Phoenix
- Hurricane Harbor Splashtown
- Hurricane Harbor Concord
- Six Flags Hurricane Harbor – CA
- Six Flags Hurricane Harbor – NJ
- Six Flags Hurricane Harbor – TX
- Six Flags White Water – GA
Obviously, some aspects of the program would have to be changed, but I started thinking, why couldn’t something like that be used by Southwest Airlines? So I reached out to IBCCES and asked.
Hi there! My name is Sharon and my husband and I write what we like to call
a “moderately successful” travel blog called Your Mileage May Vary.
I discovered your website about your IBCCES Accessibility Card because
we’re both theme park fans and, in another career, I was an occupational
therapist for several decades – so I like to stay attuned to accessibility
for disabled people.
Anyway, I love that so many Six Flags, Universal, etc. theme parks are
using your accessibility card. What a great way to cut down on people
faking disabilities in order to try to skip the queues!
To that end, and as a travel blogger, I thought of an interesting point.
The policy for virtually all commercial airlines in the U.S. is that people
who need extra time for boarding get to board first (or, at least, almost
first). It’s not much of an issue with most airlines, but potentially
becomes a problem for those flying on Southwest Airlines, since they don’t
have assigned seating. Not surprisingly, some people take advantage of that
and it’s not unusual for there to be 20 or 30 people in wheelchairs,
waiting to be the first group to go on a Southwest flight (who are
subsequently “cured” when disembarking). This, in turn, becomes a point of
contention for those waiting to board.
Since your program is HIPAA compliant, have you ever contacted Southwest
Airlines to see if an airline-friendly version of your IBCCES Accessibility Card
could be a possibility? Or if you have, what was their reaction?
I look forward to your reply!
A few days later I heard back from Natalia Gonzalez, Marketing Manager for IBCCES:
Thank you, Sharon, for reaching out. Currently, the IAC program is focused on helping streamline the process for guests at theme parks and attractions. Thanks so much for the feedback, currently no airlines are in the process, but that’s a good idea 🙂
Well yeah, I know it’s a good idea; that’s why I brought it up. 😉
SO…maybe, with some adjustments here and there, it could’ve been a fix. But it doesn’t sound like IBCCES wants to pursue it at the moment. And Southwest, for all its experiments with boarding (like this one, and this one), apparently has no interest, so… #sigh.
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