Repeat destination? 🏝️ Traveling for merch? Lost, damaged? Tell us What you're owed ✈️
Air Travel

Wheelchair basketball players say Southwest left a '300-piece jigsaw puzzle' after flight

Zach Wichter

Myranda Shields and Justin Walker’s trip to Richmond, Virginia, for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association National Championships was not a slam dunk.

Walker, who plays for the Phoenix Suns D2 wheelchair team, said that when he and his teammates arrived in Virginia, they found what his girlfriend (Shields) and a fellow wheelchair basketball player described as a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle. The baggage handlers had separated wheels from dozens of wheelchair frames while loading them onto the plane. 

“When we got there, it was like they weren’t prepared for us at all. There was no communication from Denver, like ‘we just packed you the world’s biggest mess of a cargo situation,’ ” Shields told USA TODAY. “All the wheels are off of our chairs, and they don’t have any additional employees to help us.” 

Social media video shows the scene when Shields and Walker arrived in Richmond.

The Suns flew on Southwest Airlines from Phoenix to Richmond via Denver on April 10, and Shields said there were a few other teams participating in the tournament on their flight. She said that the tournament organizers had been in touch with the Richmond airport operators and with Southwest for months before the event to make sure everyone was prepared, but the system still fell apart for the players during their trip.

Wheelchairs being loaded at Denver Airport.

“We understand what we’re asking, what we need to bring is more than a normal passenger. That’s why we go ahead and communicate,” Walker told USA TODAY. “The lack of knowledge is unreal. It’s just sickening.” 

Shields said the scene on arrival in Richmond was so chaotic that the gate agent eventually called the police because so many players and other travelers were going back and forth into the jetway to collect pieces of their wheelchairs that had been separated. Some of the travelers in the group were not wheelchair users, and some of those who brought wheelchairs have some mobility without their device, so they were able to work on piecing things back together. 

Disassembled wheelchair wheels on the jetbridge in Richmond.

The situation did not improve in the baggage claim area.

“When we got down to baggage claim, the people that were down there, there wasn’t nearly enough staff for this situation,” Shields said. The employees in the airport were telling passengers that bags had been left off the plane to accommodate the unusually high number of wheelchairs and it led to frustration for everyone in the arrivals hall.

“It was insane the way there were passengers yelling at us. It was just awful. They were just blaming everything on the wheelchairs,” Shields said.

Southwest’s airport manager in Richmond sent an email to team captains and event organizers acknowledging the incident. 

“I wanted to apologize to those teams that experienced a prolonged delay and negative experience when arriving here into RIC over the last two days. There has been communication to all cities involved in your travel plans for well over a month and our goals were to make your travel experience as smooth as possible. We failed on our end for several of you,” the email, which USA TODAY reviewed, said.

Wheelchair frames on a baggage cart in Richmond.

In a separate statement to USA TODAY, Southwest Airlines said it will work to do better.

“We have reviewed the situation and addressed it with the appropriate parties. We value our customers and incorporated their feedback to strive for a better experience the next time they fly with Southwest,” the statement said. “We apologize any time we don’t meet customer expectations and have a long history of caring for our customers.”

Cruising Altitude:Data doesn't show how 'catastrophic' airline wheelchair damage can be

For Shields and Walker, the statements don’t go far enough, saying they encountered similar issues on the trip home as they connected in Chicago Midway.

“For me, it’s the lack of listening by Southwest employees and the ground staff,” Walker said. “If we have to listen to them about how many exits are on the plane, if we have to listen to them about what to do and what not to do, then they should have the decency to listen to us.”

Both Shields and Walker said they want Southwest to improve its communications with disabled travelers and provide more in-depth training for baggage handlers who handle mobility equipment.

U.S. airlines damage thousands of mobility devices every year

According to the Department of Transportation, Shields and Walker’s experience is hardly an outlier. In 2023, U.S. airlines transported 835,327 wheelchairs and other mobility aids last year, and there were 11,527 reports of damage – a rate of 1.38 devices damaged per 100 carried.

While that’s a slight improvement over 2022 statistics, advocates say even one incident of mobility device damage is too much, and want to see airlines get those numbers down to zero if they want to claim to be accessible for all travelers.

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at

Featured Weekly Ad