CHICAGO — Weary vacationers were forced to sleep on airport floors, take long bus rides or cut trips out altogether on Tuesday as the meltdown triggered by the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights extended into another day.
With nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights canceled again on Tuesday, many families have been looking for a way to return home after visiting relatives for Christmas. Some, like Isabella Carvajal, had never managed to reach loved ones.
Ms Carvajal, 20, spent Christmas Day at Chicago’s Midway International Airport and had slept in the terminal for the past two nights after flying there from Miami and learning that her connecting flight to New York was cancelled.
“I spent my entire vacation at the airport,” she said on Tuesday. “I get a few minutes of sleep here and there, but not much.”
Ms Carvajal abandoned plans to see her family but still has not been able to return home. She said Southwest only refunded her half of her ticket price and told her she couldn’t book another flight to Miami until Monday. She plans to take a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Orlando in the next two days.
“Southwest has let a lot of people down,” she said.
The airline debacle came after freezing temperatures and snow swept through much of the country last week. While other airlines recovered, Southwest struggled to resolve its passenger woes, canceling more than 70 percent of flights on Monday and 64 percent on Tuesday, according to FlightAware. By Tuesday evening, the company had already canceled at least 61 percent of its flights for Wednesday. The company has apologized, calling its performance “unacceptable,” and the Department for Transport has begun investigating the airline’s cancellations.
As travelers sought alternate routes, horror stories of ruined vacations, missing luggage, and long, strained customer service lines surfaced.
Many passengers were able to take their first flights only to be stranded at connecting airports hours away from their homes and destinations.
Deepak SurendranPillai said he and his wife had planned to take their 11-year-old daughter on an extended tour of Florida — from Disney World to Miami to Everglades National Park — but had to scrap everything when they flew from Oakland to Las Vegas and then got stuck there on Christmas Eve amidst a wave of cancellations.
Mr. SurendranPillai, 41, who lives in Alameda, California and works for a technology company, finally came to terms with his family having to postpone the trip altogether. But somehow the family’s bags – including one with wrapped Christmas presents for his daughter Namah – were put on a flight without them.
The family stayed the night at a Las Vegas hotel, and Mr. SurendranPillai put a pair of earrings under his daughter’s pillow – from Santa Claus – to wake her up on Christmas Day, one of the few gifts he kept in his bag -on.
Southwest customer service reps rebooked Mr. SurendranPillai and his family on Sunday on a series of flights, all of which were canceled until they were finally able to get the last three seats on a plane back to the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Anything we did from noon to 7 a.m., we weren’t sitting anywhere – we just stood in lines,” Mr SurendranPillai said.
When the family returned home, Mr. SurendranPillai said his daughter was in tears because she thought she hadn’t gotten what she wanted most: a pair of red Converse shoes.
“She says, ‘I didn’t ask for much. I was just asking about red Converse shoes,’” recalled Mr. SurendranPillai. “I had to tell her, ‘I bought these for you. Santa didn’t get these, so they’re in our luggage.’”
At Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, Carole and Marc Shepard sat surrounded by their suitcases in the Southwest baggage claim area, hoping to make it home to Pittsburgh after visiting their daughter for the holidays.
They’d checked Southwest’s website repeatedly – while eating breakfast in the car on the way to the airport – and found that their first connecting flight to Las Vegas was still on schedule. But 15 minutes before boarding started, the gate agent announced that it was cancelled.
The couple were told Southwest wouldn’t be able to book them on another flight to Pittsburgh until next Tuesday. When they had to go home to meet their son, who is visiting from New York, they paid $1,700 for two Delta Air Lines plane tickets on Wednesday, which Ms Shepard, 66, described as a “ridiculous amount of money”.
“It’s just so weird why this one airline had all these problems,” said Mr. Shepard, also 66, of Southwest. “We have experienced weather delays but never a situation like this.”
The collapse of the Southwest network has been called the largest meltdown in company history. After last week’s storm led to widespread cancellations, Southwest was unable to serve crews and passengers due to an inadequate computer system and the airline’s unique “point-to-point” model, which does not return planes to main hubs redirect to new flights.
At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, passengers formed a long line at a baggage claim customer service desk hoping to locate their luggage.
Among the queues was Helena Dahlen, who had to reckon with long waiting times and had brought a pink camp chair to sit on. After several hectic days of travel, Ms Dahlen, 59, had canceled her flight plans to Los Angeles to visit friends and family and was now in search of her luggage.
Her original Southwest flight on Christmas Eve was canceled, but she had rebooked with the airline for Monday and caught a flight to Nashville. When she arrived, however, the next leg of her trip was canceled. The only option, she eventually found out, was to fly back to Baltimore and quit.
“I’m done,” Ms. Dahlen said Tuesday, three hours later still some way from the front of the line. “I have PTSD”
Other passengers in line lamented the time they missed with family because of the cancellations.
Taylor Koerner had hoped to spend some more vacation time with his Massachusetts-based daughter, but his southwest flight Monday morning from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut, was canceled. Then the flight he had rebooked for the evening was also cancelled.
Mr. Koerner, 34, of Houston, is studying to be a pediatric cardiologist and said he didn’t get much time off work. Despite having to spend Christmas with his daughter and parents, he said spending a few more days with her would have meant a lot given his schedule and the distance between them. Mr. Koerner’s mother planned to join them.
“I’m on a little time off, but my mom wanted to travel upstairs with me,” he said. “It would be nice and special for her too.”