By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Lisa Torres was traveling to Ohio for the holiday to see her significant other, and Nate Paulie Dunnam was trying to get to Idaho to visit family he hadn’t seen in nine years.
Neither of them made it.
The Wyoming residents were among thousands of passengers whose flights were canceled after Winter Storm Elliott enveloped most of North America, leaving thousands of hopeful holiday travelers stranded.
Southwest Airlines in particular had so many problems with flights and customer service that the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced an investigation into what Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described as a “meltdown.”
“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service,” the federal agency posted on Twitter. “The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable, and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”
Situation A Nightmare
Torres and Dunnam have both made it safely back home to Wyoming, although Torres is still unsure where her luggage is or when it will be returned.
Her flight was with Southwest Airlines.
“My flight Monday out of Denver was a nightmare,” Torres told Cowboy State Daily. “My flight was canceled after the departure time. At that point, you couldn’t help yourself. You had to visit a kiosk for help on rebooking a flight.”
The line for the kiosk was a minimum four hours long, Torres said.
Finally, after the long wait, she was placed on standby for another flight the same afternoon.
“I managed to get a boarding pass, but I stayed in line because I was watching flight after flight get canceled,” she said. “About an hour after the second plane was set to depart, they canceled.”
Another Six Hours In Line
Torres spent another six hours in line after that.
The airline had no flights available until Dec. 31. Her luggage, she was told, would be downstairs.
Another six-hour wait later, Torres said she was told her “luggage was downstairs with 20,000 other bags, and that my bag was going to fly to my destination no matter what.”
The fact that her car keys and prescription glasses were in that bag did not matter.
In fact, people who had packed life-saving medication in their luggage were told that they just shouldn’t have packed such medications in their checked bags.
Torres was able to rent a car out of the airport — a feat given that thousands of stranded passengers were all trying to do the same thing at the same time.
She drove the home to Cheyenne – so she could grab her spare key and then drive right back to the Denver airport for her car.
Torres has so far been unable to discover if she’ll get a refund for the canceled flight that she can no longer take.
“The phones and the (Southwest Airlines) app crashed,” she said.
Southwest Not Only Airline To Cancel Flights
Dunnam’s flight was with Frontier. He told Cowboy State Daily that he and his family were to fly out Dec. 23 from Denver.
“We were told we were delayed due to weather, then technology, and then because our pilot could not get in from Chicago,” Dunnam said.
Ultimately, the flight was canceled in the “wee hours” of Christmas Eve.
“We spent around eight hours in the airport, then took the parking shuttle back to our car,” he said. “The shuttle only held 10 people, but they were able to squeeze 17 of us in it.”
That was when the realization finally sank in that the family wouldn’t make it home for Christmas after all.
“Our final destination was Idaho,” Dunnam said. “We hadn’t been home for Christmas in nine years. We were trying to surprise our family.”
Given that, and the late hour, Dunnam and his family booked a few nights stay in Estes Park, Colorado, instead.
“It was still a great Christmas,” he said. “But we were sad that we didn’t make it to see family.”
Dunnam and his family returned to Pine Bluffs the day after Christmas.
“We’re still waiting on a refund from the airlines,” he said. “But they have promised one. Avis Car Rental was awesome and already issued a refund.”
Dunnam said they will likely try again, but plan to stick to summer travel.
“It seems that traveling in winter does not work out well,” he said. “The airports are pure chaos.”
Not Every Experience Was Completely Awful
Emily Lewis and her family, meanwhile, were in Florida, trying to get back home Christmas Day, after visiting family who live in Fort Meyers.
“We had been hearing some hubbub that there were problems with Southwest,” Lewis said. “But we were kind of like, ‘Oh, that’s probably worked itself out by now.’”
But things were not good, not good at all. At first, their flight was reported as OK, but then started to show delayed, delayed and delayed again.
Finally, it was canceled.
Meanwhile, the earliest flight an attendant could find out of Fort Meyers was not until Wednesday, Dec. 28.
“We were like, ‘That’s three days from now,’” Lewis said. “My husband has work. I have work. Our kids have stuff going on.”
Persistence Pays Off
Being a persistent sort, Emily’s husband didn’t give up.
He kept browsing flights, looking for one that would take the family of five out of Fort Meyers and get them as close to Denver as possible. They would drive the rest of the way home.
At 3 a.m., he finally noticed a flight that might work. The next morning the family drove back to the airport, but the flight turned out to be one seat short. It had just four seats and the family needed five.
They left the airport disappointed, but as they were driving away, that flight suddenly became available again. So, the family returned to the airport to check, hoping against hope.
“The same lady was there, and she was like, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you came back, because I just moved three people off the flight,’” Lewis said.
‘It Was Crazy’
The family had less than an hour to check their bags and make the flight, which took them to St. Louis.
“We sat on the tarmac for an hour, because there was so much chaos with flights and stuff like that,” Lewis said.
After they were finally able to exit the plane in St. Louis, Lewis could not believe her eyes.
“I have never seen an airport like that,” Lewis said. “And I know the St. Louis airport is smaller. But it was crazy. Crazy crowded. Lines like we’ve never seen before at the Southwest gate, all these stranded travelers trying to figure out what their options were.”
Drove The Rest Of The Way
Three flights were available to Denver, but all were showing as unavailable. They decided this was probably as close to Denver as they could get.
Luckily, the family had no problem getting their luggage or a car rental to drive the rest of the way home.
While it took three hours to get the car rental, and a 12-hour drive from St. Louis to finally get home at 2 a.m. on Dec. 27, Lewis is glad they didn’t find a flight into the Denver airport.
“One of my friends just flew back to Denver yesterday,” she said.
The picture of the chaos there reminded her what she’d seen in St. Louis, except on an even larger scale.
“(There were) mounds and mounds of luggage all around the carousels,” Lewis said. “They had the area marked off and I’m not kidding you, I have never seen anything like it.
“Just mounds and mounds of people’s luggage who couldn’t make connections.”
Yellow caution tape surrounded the small mountains of luggage to keep people out.
A Good Decision
Turns out, it’s a good thing they didn’t wait for that flight to Denver on Dec. 28, too.
“My husband texted our family earlier today,” Lewis said. “And he said, ‘Guess what? The flight that we had gotten for today, leaving out of Fort Myers at 7 p.m. tonight, was canceled.’”
They could have been among all the travelers who remain stranded.
Lewis said despite the exhausting experience, she feels like they are among the lucky ones. Everyone was nice to them along the way, and they are home now.
“So many people have a worse situation,” she said.