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Abandoned trips, lost gifts: Southwest cancellation causes holiday chaos


CHICAGO — Tired vacation travelers were left to sleep on airport floors, take long bus rides or forgo travel altogether Tuesday as the meltdown caused by cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights stretched into another day.

After nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights were canceled again Tuesday, many families were looking for any way to get home after visiting relatives for Christmas. Some, like Isabella Carvajal, have never been able to connect with their loved ones.

Ms Carvajal, 20, spent Christmas at Chicago Midway International Airport and slept in the terminal for the past two nights after flying there from Miami and learning her connecting flight to New York had been cancelled.

“I spent my entire vacation at the airport,” she said Tuesday. “I get a few minutes of sleep here and there, but not much.”

Ms Carvajal has abandoned plans to see her family but is still unable to return home. She said Southwest only refunded her half the price of her ticket 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’s failure came after freezing temperatures and snow swept across much of the country last week. While other airlines recovered, Southwest struggles to solve its passenger problemscanceling more than 70 percent of flights on Monday and 64 percent on Tuesday, according to FlightAware. By Tuesday evening, the airline had already canceled at least 61 percent of its flights for Wednesday. The company apologized and called its performance “unacceptable,” and the Department for Transport began scrutinizing the airline’s canceled flights.

As travelers searched for alternative routes, horror stories emerged of botched vacations, missing luggage and long, tense lines for customer service.

Many travelers were able to take initial flights only to be stranded at connecting airports hours away from home and their destination.

Deepak Surendran Pillai 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 ditch everything when they flew from Oakland to Las Vegas and then ended up there on Christmas Eve amid a flurry of cancellations.

Mr Surendran Pillai, 41, who lives in Alameda, California and works for a technology company, eventually came to terms with the fact that his family would have to postpone their trip entirely. But somehow the family’s bags – including one full of wrapped Christmas presents for his daughter Nama – were put on a flight without them.

The family spent the night in a Las Vegas hotel and Mr Surendran Pillai slipped a pair of earrings under his daughter’s pillow – from Santa Claus – so she would wake up with them on Christmas Day, one of the few gifts he had kept in his nose -Na.

Southwest customer service agents booked Mr. SurendranPillai and his family on a series of flights Sunday, all of which were canceled, until they finally managed to find the last three seats on the plane back to the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Everything we did from noon to 7 o’clock was not sitting anywhere — just standing in lines,” said Mr. Surendran Pillai.

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

“She says, ‘I didn’t ask for much. I just asked for red Converse shoes,” recalls Mr. Surendran Pillai. “I had to tell her, ‘I bought them for you.’ Santa didn’t get them, so they’re in our luggage.’

At Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, Carol and Mark Shepherd sat surrounded by their suitcases in the Southwest baggage claim terminal, hoping they could make it home to Pittsburgh after visiting their daughter for the holidays.

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

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

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

Southwest’s network meltdown has been called the largest meltdown in the company’s history. After last week’s storm caused widespread flight cancellations, Southwest was unable to reroute crews and passengers to new flights because of an inadequate computer system and the airline’s unique point-to-point model, which does not return planes to major hubs.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, passengers formed a long line outside the baggage claim counter in hopes of finding their luggage.

Among those in line was Helena Dahlen, who knew she was in for a long wait and had brought along a pink camping chair to sit on. After several tense days of travel woes, Ms Dahlen, 59, had abandoned plans to fly to Los Angeles to see friends and family and was now searching for her luggage.

Her original Southwest flight, on Christmas Eve, was canceled, but she had rebooked with the airline for Monday and was able to board a flight to Nashville. When she arrived, however, the next leg of her journey was cancelled. Eventually, she learned that the only option was to go back to Baltimore and give up.

“It’s done,” Ms. Dahlen said Tuesday, still some distance from the start of the line after three hours. “I got PTSD”

Other passengers in line complained about the time they missed out on with family because of the cancellation.

Taylor Koerner had hoped to spend a little more holiday time with his daughter, who lives in Massachusetts, but his flight Monday morning from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut, was canceled. Then the flight he rebooked for the evening was also cancelled.

Mr. Koerner, 34, of Houston, is training to be a pediatric cardiologist and said he doesn’t take much time off from work. Although he got to spend Christmas with his family, he said getting a few more days with his daughter would mean a lot given his schedule and the distance between them. Mr. Koerner’s mother intended to join them.

“I get some time off, but my mom would travel with me,” he said. “It would be nice and special for her too.”


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