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After extreme winter weather hit much of the US over the weekend, Southwest Airlines canceled most of its flights Monday, leaving holiday travelers frustrated and struggling to navigate chaos at multiple airports.
The airline had canceled 68% of its 3,900 scheduled flights, and 731 were delayed, as of Monday evening, according to FlightAware. Videos on social media showed long lines and stacks of baggage, and travelers told BuzzFeed News that local gate agents cited a lack of crew members as the reason for delays and abrupt cancellations. (A Southwest spokesperson said the weather had put flight crews and aircraft out of position.) Some described depending on other passengers for information — getting through to customer service by phone or online wasn’t possible — and struggling for hours to find other flights to get to their destinations.
Sam Mitrovich, 53, was traveling with his spouse and 11-year-old daughter to Baltimore from Reno, Nevada. Their initial flight on Christmas Eve was canceled two hours before departure. Mitrovich said his family was then rebooked onto a different flight Dec. 25, connecting to Maryland. But when they got on the plane, they had to deplane immediately because the flight was full. The family of three then caught a flight to Chicago and are scheduled to fly again Tuesday morning. They have spent 24 hours inside different airports so far. He said that the scene inside many of the airports was “chaos.”
“At [Chicago Midway Airport], there were at least six separate lines of 100-plus people each waiting at Southwest gates when we arrived,” he told BuzzFeed News. “People were sitting in the middle of the concourse; others were curled up against the walls sleeping on their baggage. A mom was trying to corral three toddlers in green onesies and entertain them on the floor with blocks and toy cars while Dad stood in line. One family of seven dressed in Christmas pajamas had been stuck there since the 24th and finally got booked to [Baltimore] for the 26th.”
Mitrovich also said that initially, his family was rebooked on different flights, separating him from his wife and daughter. “Spending Christmas in airports was bad enough already; the thought of being in different airports and not being together on Christmas devastated us,” he said.
Quinn Colter, 30, told BuzzFeed News that the vibe from the Southwest line at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was “frustrated resignation.” Colter was flying back with her husband to New York City from Atlanta when their flight was canceled last minute on Monday. At the time she spoke with BuzzFeed News, she had been waiting in line for nearly four hours.
“My husband and I can’t even log into the app or website to try their self-service rebooking, so we’re standing in a line with a couple hundred other people,” Colter said via DMs while waiting. “At least one couple in the line with us decided to rent a car and drive back to Texas.”
Airlines are required to provide cash refunds to travelers who decide to scrap their trips altogether if carriers cancel their flights, but some said that Southwest has attempted to circumvent refunds by means of last-minute rebookings instead.
Dawn Kelly, 45, also experienced the same issues while trying to fly from Las Vegas to Columbus, Ohio, before Christmas. “That flight was delayed repeatedly for a couple of hours because they didn’t have a crew scheduled for it,” she said. “Finally, they canceled it for lack of crew, and then everyone had to stand in a crazy-long line to try to rebook.”
After several long waits and a few other delays and cancellations in between, Kelly was given a new flight route with two connecting flights. “It was almost like being held hostage when they wouldn’t cancel flights and let us try to book something else for hours, when they didn’t even have a crew scheduled and had no idea if/when they would get one,” she said. “I think that was the single most upsetting part.”
Extreme weather has been responsible for some flight cancellations, and at least three people told BuzzFeed News that they were told that a lack of crew members was behind the issues with their Southwest flight. Mitrovich said that other airline carriers’ lines appeared to be operating “close to normal” while he was walking around different airports.
Southwest Airlines issued an apology Monday in a statement.
“We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent,” the carrier wrote. “This forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”
When BuzzFeed News asked specifically about staffing, a representative for Southwest Airlines said, “We have flight crews and aircraft out of position after the storm … leading to some flights experiencing cancellations.” They did not respond to questions about how the airline plans to compensate affected travelers.
Kelly eventually called her wife to pick her up, scrapping her plans to travel for the holidays. Mitrovich spent $140 to book a last-minute hotel in Chicago. He told BuzzFeed News that they finally got a good night’s sleep on Sunday and did the Chicago Crime bus tour, and will be trying again to get home in the morning.
As of Monday evening, Colter’s flight was rebooked for New Year’s Eve.
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