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FOX19 Investigates: People pretending to be disabled on "Miracle Flights"

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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

Flight attendants and airport workers are angry about a growing trend: people with no apparent health issues asking for a wheelchair so they can get on a plane faster.

In airports all over the county, passengers are frustrated by the wait to get through security and onto the plane.

Now, it appears more and more people are finding a way around the wait with a wheelchair. 

FOX19 went behind the scenes to document what's happening and explain why disability advocates are blowing the whistle on the fakes.

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

Scherrer manages a small airport but he's not the only one scrambling. One mid-size airport told FOX19 that they keep 300 wheelchairs on hand at all times and an even larger airport receives 2,000 wheelchairs requests every day.

This rise in wheelchair usage is partly because more people with disabilities are traveling. However, disability advocates are blowing the whistle on able-bodied passengers who they say 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. 

King estimates that at least 15 percent of able-bodied passengers are requesting wheelchairs. This rises concerns for Barb Likos, an avid traveler and mom to a special needs child.

"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. 

Airlines say they feel grounded when it comes to identifying cheaters. By law, airlines are required to give assistance to anyone who asks for a wheelchair. They also have to be cautious of what they ask the passengers. 

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

Advocates and airline personnel tell FOX19 that they're hearing more complaints about so-called "Miracle Flights."

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

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

Likos believes she has a simple solution. "I think we need a universal disability pass. It's recognized legitimately throughout all the different place we would travel," said Likos.

The same issue is arising in other counties. However, the Spinal Association says there currently aren't any plans for it. In the 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.

FOX19 was told that people who see passengers abusing the disability service should do nothing. Disabilities are not always evident and airline officials make it clear that they want it to be available to those who truly need the service.

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