December 31 – CHEYENNE – This holiday season, I was one of thousands of people around the country whose Southwest flight was canceled. Fortunately, due to a forecast storm in Chicago, I had moved my flight out of Denver from Thursday night to Wednesday morning on December 21st.
I narrowly avoided the cold front that swept through that afternoon, causing a number of canceled flights. Unlike most other airlines that operate based on a hub system, in which flights depart and return to the same hub city, Southwest’s flights mimic bus routes. Their planes fly long routes and periodically land to refuel and pick up/drop off passengers and crew members. This year, that flight plan was their downfall.
Because Denver had to cancel so many of Southwest’s flights that day, every other flight along the route was suddenly without an airplane or crew. It created a chain reaction that disrupted their entire system. So much so that when I tried to return on Monday, five days later, I found that my flight had been cancelled.
I sat with my family for hours, checking train schedules, rental car agencies, and other airlines for a way to get back to Cheyenne. I had given up hope after seeing airline tickets costing $1,500 or more for flights through Thursday, but was pleasantly surprised that night when a Southwest flight opened up for Wednesday. I jumped on it and minutes later, the flight was full.
The images below are photos I took on my iPhone documenting my experience from Chicago Midway International Airport to Denver International Airport on Wednesday, December 28th.
Waiting in long lines at checked baggage and security, I arrived at Midway very early to print a baggage tag. Instead of a large, angry crowd, I found a shockingly short line at security and empty gates.
To kill time, of which I had plenty, I walked around and noticed that one side of Terminal B was filled with luggage carts. At one point, I heard a crowd cheering loudly in the distance, and a stranger sitting next to me murmured, “They must have finally found their luggage.”
When it was almost time to board, I started religiously reloading the Flight Tracker website to make sure my flight hadn’t been canceled. I doubted it when I saw the pilot making anxious gestures while talking on the phone. At one point, he was pinching the bridge of his nose next to a flight attendant, which, frankly, looked possible. Moments later, it was announced that we were short a flight attendant and had to find a replacement before boarding.
Fortunately, our flight was only delayed for 20 minutes before we were rescued by a replacement flight attendant. Her arrival was met with some cheers and many sighs of relief from the passengers. After that, the crew quickly got us on the plane and off the ground.
At baggage claim in Denver, one side of the space was set aside for unclaimed baggage and the other side was occupied by passengers waiting for their bags. Just as many passengers were stranded after Southwest canceled their flights or they failed to make their connecting flights, what seemed like hundreds of suitcases were left behind. According to the screens at baggage claim, my suitcase was supposed to be in carousel 2. I ended up wandering around and listening to my flight number being shouted by an airport employee to find my things.
To make matters worse, Denver was getting hit with a heavy amount of snow that night, making the roads dangerous and almost invisible to drivers. After finding my luggage, I received a call from my colleague and friend, Jasmine Hall, reporting that it would be another two hours before she reached the airport and that she had passed many cars that had skidded off the road.
Now, the weather in Denver on Wednesday night was, of course, not Southwest’s fault. Nor was the number of airline cancellations and flight delays the fault of gate agents, pilots or flight attendants. In fact, these crew members are experiencing the same frustrations as the passengers. They have also been stranded in cities across the country. They, too, are powerless to fix the Southwest scheduling controversy. They, too, just want to get up and take you home.
A flight attendant spoke over the loudspeaker before I left Chicago: “Many of you thanked us for being here when you boarded, and we just wanted to say thank you. Being here means we have to be here to do the things we we love and pay our bills.”
By today, most passengers will finally board their flights and return home. As you do, please remember that crew members are doing the best they can. They have received a lot of abuse from passengers in the past week due to circumstances beyond their control. A smile and a thank you could really make their day.
Alyte Katilius is the staff photojournalist for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
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