Wheelchair Travelers Get a Helping Hand

An elderly woman traveling alone. A man who broke his leg in a car accident. A young girl with brain cancer flying in regularly for treatment. For these and many other passengers who need a wheelchair, Joey Gennaro is ready to help.

Gennaro works for Aviation Safeguards, one of two wheelchair providers at Pittsburgh International Airport, where he’s been assisting passengers with disabilities and other special needs for the past eight years. Wheelchair escorts are on duty 24 hours a day; Gennaro’s shift usually starts around 3:30 a.m., the start of one of the day’s busiest travel periods.

Passengers can reserve a wheelchair through the airline when booking a flight. Once the passenger checks in at the ticket counter, the airline contacts the wheelchair dispatcher, who then pages a wheelchair escort like Gennaro to meet the passenger.

About 162,000 of the 9.2 million passengers who traveled through PIT in 2018 requested wheelchair assistance.

“The most wheelchairs are requested in May, June and July, and some of the most popular destinations are to cities in Florida,” said Laura Nicastro, General Manager of Aviation Safeguards.

Nicastro said it’s important to book a wheelchair through the airline, as it is a free service provided; to arrive two hours prior for a flight; and to keep in mind that wheelchairs are available even if a wheelchair escort is not needed.

One of Gennaro’s recent pages was for passenger Corliss Portis, 69, of the Strip District in Pittsburgh, who travels back and forth a few times a year to her home in Dothan, Alabama.

Like many of the passengers Gennaro escorts, Porter is able to walk but is uncomfortable doing so over long distances. “I have issues with my knees and hips,” she said. “My kids demand that I request a wheelchair when I travel, to ease their minds.”

Gennaro helped Porter with her bags, made sure she was checked in and had a boarding pass, and wheeled her to security. Passengers in wheelchairs are escorted through a separate line at the main security checkpoint.

Escorts take passengers through security, on and off the airport train, and to their gate, stopping at the restroom or to grab a coffee or snack as needed. The process takes as little as 20 minutes and could be up to 40 minutes for passengers to get transported from the ticketing level to their gate. The trip is shorter for passengers arriving at the airport.

On the way to the gate, Porter chatted with Gennaro, sharing fun facts about her home in Alabama, which she said is considered the peanut capital of the world. Porter said that she always brings a Primanti’s sandwich home to her friends after visiting Pittsburgh. Gennaro shared the good news that Pittsburgh International Airport will have its very own Primanti’s this March.

After Gennaro pushed Porter up to the gate, she stood from her wheelchair and gave him a big hug goodbye. He wished her a safe flight.

“It is amazing to have someone like Joey who is personable and whom I can rely on to help me through my entire journey,” Porter said with a smile.

Later, when asked if he had previously known the passenger, Genarro said no. “I have never seen her before,” he said. “But she is like many of the passengers I escort each day. We have good conversations on the way to the gate. I enjoy getting to know the passengers.”

Gennaro gets repeat business, especially from passengers visiting Pittsburgh’s world-renowned hospitals. These individuals usually need extra assistance but are often the most memorable and rewarding, he said.

“I provide wheelchair assistance for an 11-year-old girl who was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 4,” he said. ”I have been helping her for a number of years now. We know each other by name. Each time I see her she continues to lose her eyesight but when she arrives I have a wheelchair ready for her as she gets off the plane. She hears my voice and her face lights up as she knows me and that I am there to help her.

“Passengers like her remind me that I can’t take anything for granted.”

Helpful Hints:

  • Have a disabled license plate or placard? The short-term and long-term parking lots have 122 total designated disabled spots available. Patrons with a disabled plate or placard receive the least expensive rate of $8/day, regardless of which lot they use.
  • Need help from the rental car return lot or parking in the airport lot? Call the dispatch number located on flypittsburgh.com.. A wheelchair escort can meet the passenger in the lot.
  • Getting dropped off by a relative or friend? Southwest, Delta and American have curbside assistance and porter service available. If another airline is used, the dispatch line can be called to send a wheelchair escort to the curb.
  • Didn’t reserve a wheelchair when booking? Contact the airline or go to the airline’s ticket counter.

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