ABC 10 

PHOENIX — A team from Phoenix says their wheelchairs were mishandled by Southwest Airlines as they traveled to Richmond, Va. for the Wheelchair Basketball National Championships

Myranda Shields, a wheelchair athlete with Ability360's Wheelchair Basketball Team posted on social media about the issues showing the various problems she and the team encountered upon landing in Richmond. It's a reality that many in the disability community say is an example of a systemic problem of the airline industry not taking care when dealing with wheelchairs and other mobility devices. 

"They broke 7 chairs, they took all the wheels off of our chairs," Shields said in a cell phone video captured in Richmond International Airport. 

Videos captured just off the plane and shared with 12News show several wheels separated from wheelchairs. 

"When we got here to Richmond there's 120 wheels literally sitting in the jetway," Justin Walker, a wheelchair athlete with Ability360's basketball team said. 

Shields and Walker describe how they had told employees not to remove the wheels from the chairs, saying the wheelchairs can normally fit into the cargo hold without having to be removed.

"There was one pilot and a stewardess that were grabbing wheels walking on the plane asking us all three teams whose wheel is this?" Walker said. 

Each chair, which costs thousands of dollars a piece, is tailored for the specific person who uses the wheelchair.  

"These are my legs, this is my freedom, my survival, my second chance at life that I was given," Walker said. 

Shields also describes how bags were left behind at their layover. 

"'Your wheelchairs are broken because they were in there with your other wheelchairs and the bags are broken because the bags were in there with the wheelchairs and 30 bags didn't make it because we had to fit all the wheelchairs.'," Shields recalls hearing related to announcements made at baggage claim. "So it was like — we just felt like complete crap."  

The pair says scenarios like this happen often. 

"This isn't the first time that I've had this problem," Sheilds said. "They left both of our everyday chairs in Dallas last year." 

Southwest Airlines told 12News in a statement they've reviewed the situation and "addressed it with the appropriate parties so we are able to provide a better experience for our customers the next time they fly with Southwest." 

"It's disheartening," Christopher Rodriguez, Ability360's President and CEO said. "These guys train for years and they go out there for a national competition and to be distracted by something so egregious is just heartbreaking."

Rodriguez said the organization that put on the tournament made efforts ahead of time to work with various airlines ahead of the tournament regarding caring for wheelchairs as part of the tournament. 

To prevent these situations from happening, Rodriguez said more regulations and legislation are needed. 

"There's a national conversation that's being had right now about the treatment of individuals with disabilities and their equipment and their wheelchair with the airline industry. But yet we continue to see these incidents taking place almost on a daily basis," Rodriguez said. 

According to the Department of Transportation's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, more than 800 wheelchairs and scooters were mishandled by airlines in the United States in just January 2024. 

"It's unacceptable," Representative Greg Stanton, D-Arizona, said. "These are serious athletes playing in a serious tournament, they should be focused on preparing for this national tournament." 

Stanton was at Ability360 just last week discussing these ongoing problems people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices encounter when they fly. Stanton has also helped pass legislation out of the House of Representatives related to this issue. 

"I believe that it happens so regularly that it is a systemic problem that we need to have much higher required training for employees of the airlines," Stanton said. 

Stanton also said better reporting is also needed to make better policy decisions. 

Better training, listening and communication are what Shields and Walker want to see to help change their and other people's experiences while flying. 

"We already feel like we're an inconvenience," Walker said. 

"It's time for us to be loud," Shields said. "And let them know that this needs to stop."