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Athletes frustrated after airline disassembled wheelchairs without knowledge: 'These are our legs'

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Posted at 11:40 PM, Apr 11, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-12 17:10:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some athletes traveling to Richmond for the National Wheelchair Basketball Championship are raising concerns about the conditions they said they got their wheelchairs back in after landing at Richmond International Airport Wednesday night.

Athletes and their families flew into RIC on a Southwest flight from Arizona with a connection in Denver.

Family members said they were in disbelief when they got off the plane in Richmond to see their sports chairs disassembled and the parts mixed up with many other pieces on the jet bridge.

Myranda Shields, the team's social media manager, posted a video of the incident on Instagram.

In the video, players could be heard saying “these are our legs.” Shields said they had to wait on the plane for an extended period of time to reassemble the chairs because they couldn’t get off the plane without them.

She said it took so long because the airline dismantled the chairs without their knowledge, creating a disarray in trying to determine which parts belonged to which chairs.

They also say some of the chairs were damaged in the incident.

“It’s frustrating, sad, and disheartening. We are just trying to play a sport. We were holding back tears," Shields said. "It’s already frustrating and difficult to travel so when you add in those extra layers of employees not being nice, other passengers yelling at us it was straight chaos."

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Myranda Shields

It is not uncommon for airlines to disassemble wheelchairs in order for them to fit in cargo space. However, according to the Department of Transportation, the chairs should be re-assembled by the time passengers exit the plane.

The team said they also took issue with how they said airline staff handled the situation.

They claim staff kept announcing to passengers on the plane that the delays and potential damage to luggage were because of the issue with the disassembled wheelchairs.

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Bridgitte McIntee

Bridgitte McIntee, the mother of one player said it was painful to watch the community go through it.

“To take a group of people that already feels like a burden to all of society, and then you put all of this on them? I was angry,” McIntee said.

Southwest Airlines tells CBS 6 they have been made aware of the situation and are working to make it right. A spokesperson said they had been on monthly calls to prepare for this tournament.

They also said this incident was a breakdown of communication amongst staff who were trying to accommodate fitting everything on a smaller plane.

They said they are working to ensure this does not happen again and also added that moving forward, customers will be made aware if anything needs to be dissembled, and items will get properly tagged.

The athletes said they are putting the ball in Southwest Airlines court to create change so this doesn’t happen to other people.

They are now shifting their focus on winning the national championship this weekend.

“I’m excited to get after it so I can turn my brain off and not think about the last 24 hours. The opportunity to live out dreams we thought were taken away,” said Suns player, Justin Walker.

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Justin Walker

RIC said they remain committed to making the airport experience as hospitable as possible for the athletes and families coming in.

They were the organization that set up calls with the host and airlines to help prepare and create the best experience.

RIC said nearly all of its airport staff completed disability awareness and inclusion training before the event. They remain committed to working with their airline partners to make everyone welcome.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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