CHICAGO - Air travel continues to take the holiday cheer out of thousands of passengers who are stuck in limbo after Southwest Airlines cancelled most of its flights nationwide for the second day in a row.
The mess at Midway Airport – a major hub for Southwest – is nowhere near cleaned up, and for many travelers, the nightmare continues.
Roughly 260 flights were canceled there on Tuesday; most of them were Southwest flights.
The airline canceled at least 64 percent of its flights nationwide on Tuesday. On Monday, more than 70 percent of its domestic flights were grounded.
Southwest officials said the company is dealing with wide-scale disruption but claims it was fully staffed and prepared for the holiday weekend.
Instead, the airline is blaming recent winter weather on the travel woes. However, other major airlines aren't experiencing the same issue – leading to many questions from customers and mounting pressure from federal officials.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, on Tuesday, called the ordeal ‘unacceptable.’
"Southwest passengers have experienced unacceptable disruptions and customer service conditions," said Buttigieg. "I have made clear to their executives that our department will hold Southwest accountable for making things right with their customers and employees."
Governor J.B. Pritzker also issued a statement, writing, in part: "All travelers must be compensated for invaluable loss of time this holiday season, on top of compensation for rescheduled flights, hotels and alternative transportation."
Since Southwest claims its cancelations were caused by Mother Nature, they're not required to provide meal or hotel vouchers; however, the U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating whether these cancelations were controllable.
On Tuesday, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan released a video message, maintaining that the recent winter storm is to blame for its operational failures.
"I'm truly sorry," said Jordan. "Here's why this giant puzzle is taking us several days to solve. Southwest is the largest carrier in the country, not only because of our value and our values, but because we build our flight schedule around communities, not hubs. So, we're the largest airline in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the United States. Cities where large numbers of scheduled flights simultaneously froze as record bitter cold brought challenges for all airlines."
Jordan went on to say, in part:
"Our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they're planned to go."
As Southwest planes sat idle at their gates – frustration turned into exhaustion for many customers at Midway.
"I have been dealing with this since Christmas Eve. My flight got canceled at 12 o'clock in the morning while we were on the plane," said Shyille Carter.
Countless travelers have been stuck in the airport since the holiday and any plans of spending time with family are now gone.
"I didn't pay for this. As cheap as it is, I didn't expect nothing like this. Granted, it’s the holidays, but this is like something out of a movie," said Bobbi Sang, who is stranded at Midway after her connecting flight to New York was cancelled.
In addition to passengers being in limbo, thousands of unclaimed suitcases are also sitting in the airport – many of them, ending up in the wrong city.
One man said his friend connected through Midway. He made it to Philadelphia, but his bag never did.
"They're saying here at Midway, that all the bags here at Midway are only final destination bags and that if it's destined to go to Philly then it's locked in a big hangar and there's nothing they can really do about it," said Stefano Bajos, friend of a stranded traveler.
On Tuesday, Southwest customers with missing bags were asked to line up in baggage claim. After checking in with a representative, they were given permission to search for their bag in a sea of suitcases. This process was unlike Monday’s, when bags were strewn across baggage claim without any rhyme or reason – the area, open for anyone to look through.
Still, Tuesday’s system proved to be a headache for many.
"It was a lot of confusion even today. There were two lines, one for reclaiming the missing baggage, one to stand in line just to find your bags. Still, I have a lost bag, still in the process of finding the bags," said Shwedha Vinay. "I found my four bags but the other one left had all the gift items, so I don’t know what has happened. And I see that some of the bags were opened."
It's a common tale, along with travelers losing hope they'll make it where they need to go.
"It's been kind of changing times all day, so we weren't really sure if it was going up or down so on the way here it got pushed back until I think almost 11 p.m.," said Kristen Etivo.
Looking ahead, Southwest said it will "continue operating a reduced schedule" by flying roughly one-third of its schedule for the next several days.