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Disability Advocates Speak Out Against Airport Wheelchair Abusers

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Airline passengers are often frustrated by the long wait to get through security. However, people seem to be finding a way around it by using a wheelchair, even if they are not disabled.

As CBS 2's Emily Smith reported on Monday, there has been an uptick in the use of wheelchairs in airports in the Tri-State Area and nationally.

"We've handled maybe 100 wheelchairs a year. Now there are some times where we can handle 100 wheelchairs in a day," Westchester County Airport Manager Peter Scherrer told Smith.

Mid-sized Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport keeps 300 wheelchairs on hand at all times now. Los Angeles International Airport receives 2,000 requests a day for special assistance.

The increase is partly because more people with disabilities are traveling, but disability advocates are blowing the whistle on able-bodied passengers who they contend are playing the system to save time or board the plane sooner.

"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," Kleo King of the United Spinal Association told Smith.

It's hard to pin down an official number for how many of the requests for wheelchairs are bogus, but King estimated it at 15 percent nationwide.

"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," mother and special needs advocate Barb Likos said.

The airlines said they feel grounded when it comes to identifying cheaters. By law, they are required to give assistance to anyone who asks or risk hefty fines.

And they have to be careful of what they ask, because questioning a person's disability violates their privacy, King said.

But advocates and airline personnel said 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 wheelchair and when they get to the destination, for some reason, they actually are able to walk again," Scherrer told Smith.

Likos said she'd like to see a solution to what she said is a growing problem.

"I think we need a universal disability pass," she told Smith.

Such passes exist in other countries, but without any plans for bringing that the U.S., travelers are left to use the honor system.

As for questioning someone yourself who appears to be abusing the disability system, experts and others said that should be avoided since disabilities are not always evident.

The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who requests it or face fines. No description or documentation is required.

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