Standing impatiently on a line that snakes toward a check-in counter or security area at an airport, you have no doubt seen people like us: one passenger in a wheelchair; one traveling companion trotting alongside, like a dog chasing a car; and one airport employee pushing that wheelchair — unhooking the cordons and sweeping his or her charges ahead of everyone who waits.
My husband, Chris, was the one being wheeled to the front of the line on a recent trip, and I was the spouse briskly keeping up. The distances you have to travel between check-in and gate can be quite a workout, and he has difficulty walking much more than a couple of blocks. I noticed a few dirty looks thrown in our direction.
Under normal circumstances, the trip from Nova Scotia to New York City is a simple, nonstop flight of just over an hour. But our return from Canada two weeks ago turned into a weekend-long marathon. By the end of it, we were very grateful for the wheelchair service, believe me.
Impenetrable fog had settled over Halifax. Our Saturday afternoon flight was delayed, then delayed again, then finally, that evening, it was canceled. After a long day of hanging around, we made our way to an airport “inn” and to bed somewhat disgruntled. (Most carriers don’t pay for overnight accommodations when they are necessitated by bad weather.) We had to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make the alternate flight, which would take us to New York via Toronto, where we would change planes.
Chris tends to be singled out for a pat-down, as well as an X-ray, at security checkpoints because he has metal replacement parts in his body that set off alarms. This had happened at La Guardia at the start of our trip, and it happened again on the way home, when — after the short night in the so-called “inn” — we got back to the Halifax airport long before dawn.
Did you know that in some Canadian airports, you are processed through American customs before you even board the plane bound for the United States? And so we drowsily cleared U.S. customs, then flew to Toronto, where we had to deplane, pick up our baggage at a carousel, and then trundle it and ourselves through security again (yes, for the third time within 24 hours), and through American customs a second time.
Without the wheelchair, without an extremely accommodating gentleman from Dubai who was pushing it — practically running to get us to the gate on time — and without the conveyor belts that allowed me to keep up with them, we wouldn’t have made the flight from Toronto to La Guardia.
A friend recently told me about one of her older relatives, who asks for a wheelchair and enjoys special treatment at airports even though she doesn’t really need one. There would be some comedy in this, if it were being done by, say, Phyllis Diller in a 1960s comedy, but in the real world, it is a little much. (And I hope no one gets the idea from reading this.)
Pretending to need a wheelchair is pretty far down on the scale of ethical behavior; a bit lower, I’d say, than parking in a space reserved for the handicapped if you are able-bodied. At least the parking-spot snatcher runs the risk of getting caught, and getting a ticket as a sort of karmic comeuppance. I can’t imagine many people having the chutzpah to pretend to need a wheelchair, weathering the slightly embarrassing fuss and attention, just for the benefit of cutting the line.
All of which is to say: Next time your patience is tried by the sight of someone — and their companion — whizzing blithely past at the airport, you can probably safely assume they’d rather be mobile enough to wait and walk like everyone else. Save the dirty looks for the passengers who hog three or four seats when they lie down for a snooze in the lounge.
Of course, sometimes age does come with a few perks worthy of envy. At La Guardia, we learned that those who had been born before 1937 — on the date of travel — didn’t have to take off their shoes before passing through the metal detector.