Most Southwest Airlines flights aren't going anywhere, and frustration levels for scores of travelers across the country are soaring.
They've slept at airports, spent hours on the phone trying to get a customer service agent, scrambled to find alternative flights and shelled out money for alternative transportation to their destinations — or back home.
In the post-Christmas rush and severe winter storm chaos, the Dallas-based airline canceled nearly two-thirds of its flights Tuesday and said the disruptions likely won't be over for several days. Most other carriers have gotten back on track since the storm, and the federal government has said it will investigate why Southwest is so far behind.
“I’m definitely never flying Southwest again,” Tre Smith, 34, of West Valley City, Utah, said after having spent hours stuck at the Las Vegas airport Monday.
Smith, a high school basketball coach, was among 19 travelers in his program who left Salt Lake City on Monday bound for a tournament in Long Beach, California. They tried to make a connection in Nevada, but the flight was scrapped because of weather and staffing issues, he said.
After eight hours at the airport, the team found rooms at a hotel to spend the night and rented four vehicles to try to make the drive to Southern California in time for Tuesday’s tipoff.
“You should have seen the rental car line — it was insane,” Smith said. “I try to be a positive individual. The kids are all together. We are a team. … It’s just been a bad situation. My kids have done a very good job of staying positive and going with the flow.”
'They were stranded'
Amanda Lara-Santos, 38, of Tomball, Texas, a suburb of Houston, said her family's travel headaches began Thursday when her children, ages 22, 16 and 9, flew into Nashville, Tennessee, to catch a connecting flight to LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York.
The kids were stuck in Tennessee for hours after their connecting flight was canceled.
“They were stranded,” Lara-Santos said. “They were not offered any food vouchers or travel vouchers. Nothing was offered as compensation.”
They made it to New York at 3 p.m. Friday — almost a full 24 hours after they had been scheduled to arrive, Lara-Santos said.
But that wasn't the end of it.
On Tuesday, she learned their return flight Thursday wouldn't happen, and the soonest she could book a return flight on Southwest is Sunday. She said that her oldest son will have to miss work and that the family dog will have to stay longer at a kennel.
“It’s a snowball effect for us,” she said. “This affects a lot of things. It’s a lot of money. I had to pay for those three [return] flights out of pocket. Now I am frustrated, and I need to, at some point, get ahold of Southwest.”
Experts said customers should know their rights when their flights get canceled to keep costs down and possibly get some form of compensation.
'Heartfelt apologies are just beginning'
Southwest offered its “heartfelt apologies” to customers Tuesday.
“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. And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning,” it said Tuesday in a statement.
The airline has said it would fly just one-third of its schedule in the travel-heavy days after Christmas, and as of Tuesday afternoon, more than 2,600 flights, or 63% of Southwest's schedule, had been canceled, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. A similar number of flights have also been canceled for Wednesday, FlightAware shows.
More than 3,500 flights scheduled to leave Wednesday have already been canceled, with Southwest accounting for about 70% of them, according to FlightAware.
American Airlines and Delta said they have capped fares following the problems that stranded Southwest customers.
American said in a tweet reply to a passenger that fares were capped for select cities. A spokesperson for Delta said it has capped fares in all markets that Southwest operates in, and that the program is valid through Dec. 31.
'There is literally no way back in 2022'
Marty Rusnak, 53, of Fort Worth, is among the thousands of frustrated travelers. He flew to the Washington, D.C., area to spend the holidays with his family last week and learned Tuesday that his Wednesday flight home wouldn't be taking off.
He said he couldn't find another seat on a Southwest flight to Dallas until Monday.
Rusnak spent Tuesday afternoon trying to get hold of anyone with the airlines to try to fix his problem.
“I’m up to 26 times now trying to call,” he said. “There is literally no way back in 2022.”
Rusnak said he’s lucky because he doesn’t have to shell out money for a hotel.
As a backup, Rusnak said, he booked a flight for Friday on another airline, adding that it cost "a significant amount of money.” He has 24 hours to cancel that flight if he finds another flight on Southwest, noting that the backup airline will cost him.
“I’ve been a very loyal Southwest customer for over 20 years,” Rusnak said. “I’m totally disappointed with the way they are handling this thing.”
Ayla Erkan left Scottsdale, Arizona, last week with her 15-year-old daughter to spend the holidays with family in Fairport, New York, near Rochester.
Their flight home was scheduled for Thursday, but not anymore. She's now booked on a Jan. 3 flight and will have to miss New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend and hosting a party.
Erkan said the cancellation had her steaming mad Tuesday afternoon.
“I think I was at a 10 an hour or two ago. … I’m at an 8 now,” she said.
But unlike some Southwest customers, she has loved ones she can lean on for accommodations.
“My situation isn’t as bad as some folks. Luckily, I like my family,” Erkan said.