Thousands of travelers were stranded at U.S. airports on Monday as a wave of canceled flights — many of them operated by Southwest Airlines — spoiled holiday plans and kept families from returning home during one of the busiest and most stressful travel stretches of the year.
The cancellations and delays one day after Christmas left people sleeping on airport floors, standing in hourslong customer service lines and waiting on tarmacs for hours on end.
The problems are likely to continue into Tuesday and later this week. As of Monday night, about 2,600 U.S. flights scheduled for Tuesday were already canceled, including 60 percent of all Southwest flights.
“The only thing we want is to get home,” said Francis Uba, who was among the frustrated passengers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Monday, where over 130 flights were canceled as of that evening.
He and his family returned from an eight-day cruise in the Bahamas on Monday to learn that their Southwest flight back home to Columbus, Ohio, had been canceled. Mr. Uba, 60, said the airline had rebooked them onto a Wednesday flight with no explanation.
Mr. Uba, who owns a health business, said he had spent five hours trying to find another flight but had not even been able to reach an airline customer service agent and was considering renting a car in order to get back to work.
On Monday, more than 3,800 flights in the United States — including international flights into or out of the country — had been canceled as of Monday night and more than 7,400 others had been delayed, according to FlightAware, a flight tracking service. Southwest was by far the most disrupted airline, with more than 2,800 canceled flights, about 70 percent of its total flights, FlightAware showed.
Chris Perry, a spokesman for Southwest, said that the airline was “experiencing disruptions across our network” as a result of the winter storms.
“Our biggest issue at this time is getting our crews and our aircraft in the right places,” Mr. Perry said in an email. A statement on the airline’s website called the cancellations “unacceptable.”
David Vernon, an airline analyst at the financial firm Sanford C. Bernstein, said Southwest’s network is organized in what is known as a point-to-point system, which enables higher use of planes during normal times but can cause cascading negative effects when things go wrong.
“It comes down to the structure of Southwest’s network and its exposure to hard hit areas like Chicago and Denver,” he said.
On Monday night, the U.S. Department of Transportation said that it would look into the Southwest issue, and that it was “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays.”
“The department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan,” the agency said in a statement.
Among the hardest-hit airports were the Denver, Las Vegas, Dallas, Phoenix and Baltimore airports, all of which had more than 100 canceled departing flights as of Monday night, as did Chicago Midway International Airport. Denver alone had more than 220 canceled flights, making up nearly a quarter of its scheduled outbound trips.
The disruptions have kept many people from visiting their families over the holiday season and added to the problems caused by snow, ice and frigid weather during the holiday weekend.
At Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, thousands of stranded and confused passengers massed throughout the terminal in lines that snaked in all directions.
One line, with no end in sight, stretched to the Southwest ticket counter, where perhaps 10 or 15 agents staffed counters as customers queued up to learn their options — if there were any.
Hundreds were clustered on the level below, grouped around hundreds of bags, many of which had been dispatched back to Austin from canceled flights.
For some the impact was more than just a canceled flight. Elicia Michaud of Austin, 45, said four sets of grandchildren — a total of eight ranging from 13 to 22 and coming from different destinations — planned to surprise their grandparents, in their 80s, in Los Angeles. It was to be their first reunion since the coronavirus pandemic began. A photographer was lined up for the occasion. Now, Ms. Michaud said, it’s going to be canceled. “It’s going to be a massive bummer,” she said.”
Caleb Bae woke up before 3 a.m. on Monday to make an early-morning Southwest flight from Philadelphia to Nashville on his way to Los Angeles to see his family. But when he arrived at Nashville International Airport, he learned that the second leg of his trip was canceled because, he was told, there was not a crew for the flight.
“At this point, I don’t even know what to do,” Mr. Bae, 27, who lives near Boston and works in product support for a software company, said on Monday afternoon after about eight hours stuck in the airport. He had spent Christmas with his wife’s family before planning to see his own for a few days. “Now I’m not getting time with any of my family and am stranded on my own,” he said.
He said that Southwest had eventually offered him a travel voucher, but, he said, “I don’t necessarily want to fly with them again.”
After about 12 hours in the airport, Mr. Bae was able to board a different flight to Long Beach.
For others, the repeated troubles forced them to cancel trips altogether. Sabrina Leviton, an English teacher in Nyack, N.Y., had hoped to fly from La Guardia Airport in New York to Nashville on Christmas night to spend about a week with a friend. But nearly every time she refreshed her flight status on Southwest’s website, it was delayed further. After she waited in the airport for several extra hours, the flight was canceled altogether.
“It’s just not going to happen,” she said on Monday from Nyack, where she had returned after giving up on her plans to spend New Year’s Eve in Nashville. “I was looking at the other flights, and they’re like three times what I paid.”
She had spent two hours waiting in the airport customer service line before an airline employee told frustrated passengers that they could not rebook anyone. She said she still had not been able to reach the company’s phone help, either.
At the Baltimore airport on Monday afternoon, the feeling of frustration was palpable on the arrivals floor. Weary travelers stood in a long queue in the baggage claim area, seeking answers about the whereabouts of their luggage, while the more hopeful picked through the graveyard of hundreds of unclaimed suitcases.
“I can’t talk to y’all while y’all are talking, so everybody’s got to listen,” an exasperated airline worker told travelers over the intercom system.
For Francesca Christo, 13, the delays and uncertainty put a damper on the start of a holiday vacation. Francesca, a middle school student, had been looking forward to flying with her family to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Christmas Day, for a week of poolside relaxation and tennis.
Instead, the Baltimore family found themselves spending Christmas Day at home trying to rebook their canceled flight. Francesca’s mother spent four hours on hold with Southwest’s customer service line, only to be disconnected minutes after reaching an agent.
On Monday, they arrived at the airport in Baltimore and found that their flight had been delayed indefinitely again. They started thinking about backup vacation destinations within driving distance, but Francesca was still holding out hope for Florida.
“I’ll stay until the last minute,” Francesca said. “I want to go.”
David Montgomery contributed reporting.