When Airlines Fail Passengers with Special Needs

You’ve probably heard about the 85-year-old woman who missed her Southwest flight after a skycap pushing her wheelchair in Newark abandoned her (though exactly why this occurred seems to be a bit of a mystery).

What Went Wrong

According to a Southwest statement quoted by WCBS, there was “a processing error in that check-in process did not alert our employees at the gate to her special need (wheelchair) in boarding the aircraft.” Sounds like the airline is falling on its sword here and they have reportedly offered the woman some travel vouchers for future flights, but whether she’ll take them up on that offer is not  clear.

How to Avoid Problems

There are a few things you can do if you have a family member or friend with any sort of special needs:

  • Confirm, confirm: Most airlines have processes and procedures for the young and old (or anyone needing extra help on a flight). Often, such arrangements can be made online; other times, a phone call is required. Once you’ve made these arrangements, call to confirm. Then on the day of the flight, call to re-confirm!

What to know about children who must travel alone

  • Contact the TSA: For an easier experience at airport security, call the TSA Cares Help Line at 1-855-787-2227 (and it is recommended you call 72 hours before the flight). Once alerted, they will help those with disabilities or medical conditions through security. Learn more here.
  • Go to the gate: Those who bring a special needs passenger to the airport – and pick them up – should get an escort pass so they can go all the way to the gate with the passenger. The way to do this is to arrive at the airport early, go to the main airline check-in desk (before security) and request an escort pass, and do this even if arrangements have already been made for someone to push a wheelchair or escort an unaccompanied minor child. You will need ID to get through security.
  • At the gate: Politely remind the gate agent that the passenger will require a wheelchair (or whatever assistance is necessary) upon landing.
  • Upon arrival: Be sure someone is waiting at the gate when the plane arrives, and this is a good time to re-remind the gate agent that a wheelchair (or whatever) will be required.
  • Connect the passenger: Make sure your passenger has a cell phone on them and knows how to use it. Be sure it includes your number and a number for the airline, and be sure you have the passenger’s number and airline contacts, too.


Published: August 28, 2014