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Lost Presents, Abandoned Trips: Southwest Cancellations Wreak Havoc

CHICAGO — Weary holiday travelers were left to sleep on airport floors, take long bus rides or abandon trips altogether on Tuesday as the meltdown spurred by the cancellation of thousands of Southwest Airlines flights stretched into yet another day.

With nearly two-thirds of all Southwest flights canceled again on Tuesday, many families were searching for any way to get back home after visiting relatives for Christmas. Some, like Isabella Carvajal, had never been able to reach loved ones in the first place.

Ms. Carvajal, 20, spent Christmas Day in the Chicago Midway International Airport and had been sleeping in the terminal for the last two nights after flying there from Miami and learning that her connecting flight to New York was canceled.

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

Ms. Carvajal gave up on her plans to see her family, but she has still been unable to return home. She said Southwest reimbursed her for just half of her ticket price and told her that she could not book another flight to Miami until Jan. 2. She is planning to take a Greyhound bus from Chicago to Orlando over the next two days.

“Southwest let a lot of people down,” she said.

Isabella Carvajal, 20, spent Christmas Day in the Chicago Midway International Airport and had been sleeping in the terminal for the last two nights after flying there from Miami.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

The airline debacle came after frigid temperatures and snow swept through much of the country last week. While other airlines recovered, Southwest has struggled to solve its passenger problems, canceling more than 70 percent of flights on Monday and at least 63 percent on Tuesday. By Tuesday morning, the company had already nixed at least 62 percent of its flights for Wednesday.

As travelers sought out alternative routes, horror stories emerged, about ruined vacations, missing luggage and long, tense customer service lines. Many passengers were able to take initial flights only to be stuck in connecting airports hours away from their home and destination.

Deepak SurendranPillai 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 scrap it all when they flew from Oakland to Las Vegas and then ended up stuck there on Christmas Eve amid a wave of cancellations.

Mr. SurendranPillai, who works for a technology company, eventually resigned to the fact that his family would have to postpone their trip altogether. But somehow the family’s bags — including one filled with wrapped Christmas gifts for his daughter, Namah — were put on a flight without them.

The family spent the night in a Las Vegas hotel, and Mr. SurendranPillai slipped a pair of earrings under his daughter’s pillow — from Santa Claus — for her to wake up to on Christmas Day, one of the few gifts he had kept in his carry-on.

Southwest Airlines planes at Midway Airport on Tuesday. The airline canceled more than 70 percent of flights on Monday and at least 63 percent on Tuesday.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

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

“All we did from noon until 7 o’clock, we did not sit anywhere, we just stood in queues,” Mr. SurendranPillai said.

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

“She’s like, ‘I didn’t ask for much, I just asked for red Converse shoes,’” Mr. SurendranPillai recalled. “I had to tell her, ‘I bought those for you, Santa did not get those, so they’re in our luggage.’”

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