Abandoned Trips Lost Presents Southwest Cancellations Wreak Holiday Havoc

Abandoned Trips, Lost Presents: Southwest Cancellations Wreak Holiday Havoc

CHICAGO — Weary holiday travelers were left to sleep on airport floors, take long bus rides or abandon trips altogether on Tuesday as the meltdown spurred by the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights stretched into yet another day.

With nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights canceled again on Tuesday, many families were searching for any way to get back home after visiting relatives for Christmas. Some, like Isabella Carvajal, had never been able to reach loved ones in the first place.

Ms. Carvajal, 20, spent Christmas Day in Chicago Midway International Airport and had been sleeping in the terminal for the last two nights after flying there from Miami and learning that her connecting flight to New York was canceled.

“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 gave up on her plans to see her family, but she has still been unable to return home. She said Southwest reimbursed her for just half of her ticket price and told her that she could not book another flight to Miami until Monday. She is planning to take a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Orlando over the next two days.

“Southwest let a lot of people down,” she said.

Isabella Carvajal, 20, Spent Christmas Day In Chicago Midway International Airport And Has Slept In The Terminal For The Last Two Nights After Flying There From Miami.
Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

The airline debacle came after frigid temperatures and snow swept through much of the country last week. While other airlines recovered, Southwest has struggled to solve its passenger problems, canceling more than 70 percent of flights on Monday and 64 percent on Tuesday, according to FlightAware. By Tuesday evening, the company had already nixed at least 61 percent of its flights for Wednesday. The company has apologized and called its performance “unacceptable,” and the Department of Transportation has begun scrutinizing the airline’s cancellations.

As travelers sought out alternative routes, horror stories emerged of ruined vacations, missing luggage and long, tense customer service lines.

Kyle Grillot for The New York Times
Emil Lippe for The New York Times

Many passengers were able to take initial flights only to be stuck in connecting airports hours away from their home and destination.

Deepak SurendranPillai said he and his wife had planned to take their 11-year-old daughter on an extensive tour of Florida — from Disney World to Miami to Everglades National Park — but had to scrap it all when they flew from Oakland to Las Vegas and then ended up stuck there on Christmas Eve amid a wave of cancellations.

Mr. SurendranPillai, 41, who lives in Alameda, Calif., and works for a technology company, eventually resigned himself to the fact that his family would have to postpone its trip altogether. But somehow the family’s bags — including one filled with wrapped Christmas gifts for his daughter, Namah — were put on a flight without them.

The family spent the night in a Las Vegas hotel, and Mr. SurendranPillai slipped a pair of earrings under his daughter’s pillow — from Santa Claus — for her to wake up to on Christmas Day, one of the few gifts he had kept in his carry-on.

Southwest customer service agents rebooked Mr. SurendranPillai and his family onto a series of flights on Sunday, 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.

“All we did from noon until 7 o’clock, we did not sit anywhere — we just stood in queues,” Mr. SurendranPillai said.

Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

When the family returned home, Mr. SurendranPillai said his daughter had tears in her eyes, thinking she had not gotten the one thing she most wanted: a pair of red Converse shoes.

“She’s like, ‘I didn’t ask for much. I just asked for red Converse shoes,’” Mr. SurendranPillai recalled. “I had to tell her, ‘I bought those for you. Santa did not get those, 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 terminal, hoping that they would be able to make it home to Pittsburgh after visiting their daughter for the holidays.

They had been checking Southwest’s website repeatedly — while eating breakfast and in the car on the way to the airport — and it had showed that their first connecting flight, to Las Vegas, was still on schedule. But 15 minutes before boarding was set to begin, the gate agent announced that it had been canceled.

The couple said they were told that Southwest would not be able to book them on another flight to Pittsburgh until next Tuesday. Needing to get home to meet their son, who is visiting from New York, they paid $1,700 for two Delta Air Lines tickets to travel on Wednesday, what Ms. Shepard, 66, called a “ridiculous amount of money.”

“It’s just so strange why this one airline had all these problems,” Mr. Shepard, who is also 66, said of Southwest. “We’ve experienced weather delays but never a situation like this.”

The breakdown across Southwest’s network was being called the biggest meltdown in the company’s history. After last week’s storm caused widespread cancellations, Southwest was unable to redirect crews and passengers onto new flights because of an inadequate computer system and the airline’s unique “point to point” model that does not return planes to main hubs.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, passengers formed a long line at a baggage claim customer service desk in hopes of locating their luggage.

Among those in line was Helena Dahlen, who knew to expect a long wait and had brought a pink camping chair with her to sit in. After several hectic days of travel woes, Ms. Dahlen, 59, had given up on her plans to fly to Los Angeles to see friends and family and was now in search of her luggage.

Her initial Southwest flight, on Christmas Eve, was canceled, but she had rebooked with the airline for Monday and made it onto a flight to Nashville. When she arrived, though, the next leg of her trip was canceled. The only option, she eventually learned, was to fly back to Baltimore and call it quits.

“I’m done,” Ms. Dahlen said on Tuesday, still a ways from the front of the line after three hours. “I got P.T.S.D.”

Other passengers in line lamented the time they had missed with family because of the cancellations.

Taylor Koerner had been hoping to squeeze in a bit more holiday time with his daughter, who lives in Massachusetts, but his Monday morning Southwest flight from Baltimore to Hartford, Conn., was canceled. Then, the flight he rebooked for the evening was also canceled.

Mr. Koerner, 34, of Houston, is training to be a pediatric cardiologist and said he did not get much time away from work. Though he got to spend Christmas with his family, he said getting a few more days with his daughter would have meant a lot, given his schedule and the distance between them. Mr. Koerner’s mother was planning on joining them.

“I get a little time off, but my mom was going to travel up with me,” he said. “It was going to be nice and special for her, too.”

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