CHICAGO - Frustrated families spent hours in check-in lines and searching through a sea of baggage Monday at Chicago’s Midway International Airport in a post-Christmas travel mess that saw thousands of Southwest Airlines flights canceled and delayed.
The airline suffered a "wide-scale disruption" in service that left thousands of customers stranded across the country and their suitcases in different cities as a winter storm upended holiday travel.
Some passengers said they were stuck for three or four hours in lines that spanned the entire length of Midway’s upper-level departures concourse.
Midway reported 307 flight cancelations and 152 delays as of 7:45 p.m. O’Hare International Airport had 130 flights canceled and 985 delayed.
Southwest Airlines accounted for almost all the Midway disruptions, with 68% of its flights into or out of the airport canceled and another 17% delayed, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. Southwest had more O’Hare flights canceled than any other airline, too — about 86% of its trips were called off there — and made up 45% of all canceled flights within, into or out of the United States on Monday.
Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago and Dallas were experiencing the most cancelations, both outbound and inbound.
Southwest apologized to customers in a statement Monday afternoon, saying it was "fully staffed and prepared" heading into the busy holiday weekend, but the storm caused massive operating disruptions.
"With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our customers and employees in a significant way that is unacceptable," the airline said.
"Our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning. … On the other side of this, we’ll work to make things right for those we’ve let down, including our employees."
A spokesman said the airline was "still experiencing disruptions across our network as a result of Winter Storm Elliott’s lingering effects on the totality of our operation. With the weather now considerably more favorable, we continue work to stabilize and improve our operation."
He said Southwest customers were being accommodated "as possible, based on available space." Those whose flights were canceled and not rebooked could request a full refund or flight credit, and passengers who lost baggage could seek help on the airline’s website or at the airport.
"We continue to experience high call and social inquiry volumes. Please check your flight status and explore self-service options" online, Southwest said on Twitter as thousands of users asked for help.
The U.S. Department of Transportation also took to Twitter on Monday night, calling Southwest’s cancelation rate and delays "unacceptable." The agency vowed to follow up and investigate whether the cancelations were avoidable.
The Midway situation was perhaps worst at the lower-level arrivals area, where thousands of pieces of luggage sat unclaimed from flights around the country. Some baggage was grouped by departure city, but many others weren’t labeled or grouped.
Passengers who had already battled through cancelations and delays were digging through the luggage upon arrival. One traveler said his flight from Dallas was canceled Sunday, and he caught a new one Monday morning, only to arrive at Midway and spend 45 minutes looking for his suitcase with no success.
Taylor Harris, an Uptown resident, showed up just before 6 a.m. for an 8:20 a.m. flight to see his parents in Raleigh, North Carolina. Harris sat at the gate with his two young kids, ages 3 and 5, waiting through a delay.
About two hours later, the gate’s destination city changed without any announcements by Southwest attendants. Passengers received emails and texts telling them their flights had been canceled.
"It’s so sad because it was going to be a great vacation, they were so looking forward to it," Harris said of his kids. "She was yelling through the terminal, ‘I want to see Grandma and Grandpa.’ Just tearing up for her."
Around noon, Harris was standing in a baggage services line to ask about his children’s car seats and a suitcase that had their coats, all of which had already been checked. Harris was told the bag and car seats were on a flight set to leave in two hours, but staffing shortages meant nobody could pull them before the flight. And there weren’t seats available on that overbooked plane for Harris and his kids.
Another passenger looking through the mass of luggage had a flight to see family in Phoenix canceled Saturday but was told his baggage would still be sent. He was back Monday to check if his bag had returned but had no luck. The customer service hotline had an hours-long wait, and the line out of the baggage services office wrapped around a corner.
Three Southwest baggage carousels were shut down because all the unclaimed bags sat on the surrounding ground. The remaining carousels overflowed with new-arrival luggage, bags falling on top of and over each other.
In the middle of the chaos, an automated message played over the airport public announcement system: "Hi, everyone. I am Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and I am thrilled to welcome you to Chicago."
A call to a number on a suitcase labeled with an Ohio address was answered by Columbus, Ohio, resident David Guntrip, who had been on a ski trip with his wife and son in Keystone, Colorado.
Their flight to Columbus was canceled Christmas Eve morning, so the family searched for flights to other Midwest cities and planned to figure out a way home from there.
They booked a Southwest flight to Midway, showed up and checked their bags. Hours later, their flight was canceled, but their bags were nowhere to be found.
The Guntrips eventually booked a United Airlines flight to O’Hare and took a car service to spend Christmas Day with family in northwest Indiana.
Guntrip learned from a Sun-Times reporter that the family’s luggage was sitting out with thousands of others at Midway’s baggage claim area.
"I’ve flown Southwest almost religiously for the past 15 years," Guntrip said. "They always got me to where I needed to be. They’re not doing that this time."
Guntrip said the airline hadn’t offered a refund, flight credit or money for a hotel or rental car. He didn’t plan to make the trip back to Chicago to find his bags.
"My expectation is Southwest will uphold its end of the bargain and get our bags to Columbus."