Travelers need to stop faking disabilities. It’s hurting people who DO have them

On a flight from Charlotte to Denver, Stephen Caron met a man he thinks was faking a disability.

“He boarded first because he was in a wheelchair,” recalls Caron, a retired customer sales manager from Jacksonville, Florida. “When we landed he got up and walked off the plane.”

The man then made a beeline to the baggage claim in Denver, a lengthy walk from the gate, unassisted. Caron says he’s seen it happen many times.

Airline crew members have a name for that kind of fake disability on a plane. It’s called a “miracle” flight.

From bogus service animals to feigned injuries, the travel industry is filled with fakers. There’s a reason for it. Travel companies, and particularly airlines, often make the trip so uncomfortable that passengers feel justified in being untruthful. But it’s time to rein in the fake disability problem as it hurts the people who do live with disabilities every day.

Not all disabilities are obvious

Before we crack down on “miracle” flights or pets being passed off as emotional support animals, let’s acknowledge something that may not be obvious. Disabilities aren’t always clearly visible.

Cindy Huner and her husband travel with canes, for example. She has fibromyalgia, a musculoskeletal disorder, and her husband has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an immune-mediated illness. 

“We are always aware of other people and their concerns and try very hard not to take advantage,” says Huner, a retired travel agent from Littleton, Colorado. “We pay extra for the early boarding group on our flights even though we can board first without it because if we can stand in line, we will. But people think we are lying when they see us.”

Huner makes a valid point about disabilities: You can’t always tell by looking at someone if they’re faking it.

Not that it would matter. 

“According to federal law, hotel staff are not allowed to ask for proof of a person’s disability,” says hotel expert Glenn Haussman, founder and host of the “No Vacancy News” podcasts. “Unfortunately, it’s opened the door to dishonest people looking to abuse the government policy.  And it’s put people in the travel business into a tough spot.”

Fake disabilities in travel have gone too far

Consider what happened to etiquette expert Jodi RR Smith on a recent flight from Boston to Miami. Before she boarded, she watched a long line of passengers in wheelchairs who boarded before the first group. 

“You can imagine my complete shock when we landed in Florida and all of those priority wheelchair boarders popped up like little jack-in-the-boxes and skipped off the plane as quickly as possible,” she says.

You don’t have to be an etiquette expert to know that faking a disability is wrong. 

Fake service animals became such a problem that the Department of Transportation revised its rules around flying with emotional support animals. The government no longer considers them to be service animals, which are required by law to be allowed to fly with passengers on commercial airlines. 

“Unfortunately, the title emotional support animal is losing the respect it deserves because it’s being abused by people who simply want to travel with their pets on board, free of charge,” says Christine Benninger, president of Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit organization.

The fake disability problem may be worse than you think

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