The wheelchair brigade at airports


We Indians are a strange lot and most of the time we don’t realise how strange we are. For example, have you noticed how many perfectly healthy Indians demand the use of wheelchairs at airports? I have a cousin who is in her late sixties and walks five kilometres everyday, come rain or shine. But whenever she has to catch a flight, she suddenly finds herself limping, huffing, puffing and feeling faint. Her son who books her tickets refuses to book a wheelchair for her. But she is very resourceful and always manages to get one.

One day I asked her why she did this? “Don’t you know you may be depriving someone who genuinely needs one?” I said. Her response was clear: it wasn’t her problem, it was the airport’s. But I persisted. I asked her why she wanted to be trundled around by some young man who would demand a tip. Her reply took me aback. She said she never tips anyone. Her logic is that she is not going to see them ever again so how does it matter? She does this in restaurants also. As logic goes, it’s impeccable.

“But why can’t you walk to the gate,” I asked her, “when you are capable of it.” Her answer was that getting herself onto a flight was “boring” and with a wheelchair it became someone else’s responsibility. “I just sit and enjoy the ride,” she said and added that on the other side, after landing, she didn’t have to lift her bags. The wheelchair boy took care of it, little knowing that she wouldn’t tip him. And she does this a lot, about 8–10 times a year.

I’ve been noticing how the wheelchair brigade has gone up from one or two per flight a few years ago to five or six and sometimes even more now.

She isn’t the only one, of course. I have been noticing how the wheelchair brigade has gone up from one or two per flight a few years ago to five or six and sometimes even more now. What angers me is that you can see these people walking quite normally to the toilets because they don’t want the attendant there. Indeed, I have even seen many of them discharging the attendants at the boarding gate and walking down quite normally to the aircraft to their seats. Why, I have once seen two of them, obviously friends, go walking, not a care in the world to a restaurant, eat, and return to their wheelchair while the attendants and the wheelchairs both waited for around half-an-hour.

In contrast, you hardly ever see a wheelchair at foreign airports. I travel abroad at least once a year to visit my grandchildren and have never seen wheelchairs except in Dubai where they have been requisitioned by… guess who? Yes, Indians travelling out of India. On the return flights there are none. How does one explain that?

Abroad, even 90-year-old men and women, if they can, walk the distance. Indians, however, don’t seem to care when outbound from India. The logic clearly is that if it’s there for the taking, take it. In a way, it’s the same logic as the one Indians use in restaurants. If it’s free, eat lots of it. I once watched a man polish off an entire bottle of ketchup. It was, I must admit, fascinating to watch his dedication to freebooting because he added the sauce to all dishes, even fried fish. The same thing goes for pickled onions and mouth freshners which get eaten by the fistful during and after the meal.

So here’s a suggestion for airports: start charging for wheelchairs — ₹500 should do. Plus a compulsory tip of ₹200. That will ensure a steep fall in the demand for wheelchairs.

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