Thousands of people remain stranded at airports and searching for luggage after extreme weather – including icy blizzards – grounded planes across the United States.
But while other airlines recovered from ferocious winter storms that hit large swaths of the country over the weekend, frustrated passengers flying with Dallas-based airline Southwest continue to be disrupted.
On Wednesday the major airline scrubbed 2,500 flights and 2,300 more on Thursday after thousands more were brought to a halt in the days prior. By Wednesday afternoon, about 90 per cent of all cancelled flights along the country's east coast were on Southwest, according to the FlightAware tracking service — and customers holed up in airports were enraged.
Luggage lost for days
One Monday, Joshua Rodriguez described the situation at Denver airport in Colorado, as a "nightmare" with hundreds, if not thousands, of people lining up with nowhere to go. Photos and video shared on Twitter show a mountain of checked luggage waiting to be claimed after failing to make it on board as travel plans were thrown into chaos.
"Some people searched for 3 days to reconnect with their luggage," Mr Rodriguez tweeted, and on Thursday he said "it’s just getting worse". He Tweeted another photo of the airport floor covered in lost luggage yet to be found by would-be passengers — and no one knows when or how it will end.
The airports most affected by the cancellations have been Denver, Las Vegas, Chicago Midway, Baltimore/Washington and Dallas Love Field — where Southwest is based, according to CNN.
At Honolulu International Airport, Southwest passenger Crystal Muñoz had to sort through over "easily 75 bags jammed together" to find her family's suitcases, US Today reported. Many Southwest Airlines passengers have reportedly been given little to no information about where their belongings might be.
"It was a free for all and then they had to move them for another flight’s incoming luggage," she said. "Anyone could have taken any bag."
Delays to last another week, says CEO
In a video posted on Twitter by Southwest on Wednesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest would operate a reduced schedule for several days but hoped to be "back on track before next week". He also apologised for the disruption caused so far.
"We have some real work to do in making this right," Mr Jordan, a 34-year Southwest veteran who became CEO in February, said. "For now, I want you to know that we are committed to that."
He said one of the main reasons for the major disruption was because Southwest is among the largest carriers in many of the cities that saw record freezing temperatures from the storm.
"With our large fleet of airplanes and flight crews out of position in dozens of locations, and after days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up," he said.
Southwest Airlines 'meltdown' criticised
At various airports across the country, Southwest found itself without pilots or flight attendants available, largely due to an outage in the airline's IT systems, which left them unable to locate necessary staff. As a result, customers were left stranded at airports as thousands of flights were cancelled over the weekend — but the disruption continued.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticised airlines for previous disruptions, said that "meltdown" was the only word he could think of to describe this week’s events at Southwest. He noted that while cancellations across the rest of the industry declined to about 4 per cent of scheduled flights, they remained above 60 per cent at Southwest.
From the high rate of cancellations to customers’ inability to reach Southwest on the phone, the airline’s performance has been unacceptable, Mr Buttigieg said. He vowed to hold the airline accountable and push it to reimburse travellers.
"They need to make sure that those stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation, including for missed flights, hotels and meals," he said Wednesday on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.