Watch CBS News

Travelers stranded in Chicago and fit to be tied; feds want answers from Southwest Airlines

Feds want answers from Southwest Airlines amid rash of delays, cancellations
Feds want answers from Southwest Airlines amid rash of delays, cancellations 03:12

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Severe weather in Buffalo and other places to our east continued to cause headaches Monday night for travelers in Chicago.

It was a problem at airports nationwide – travelers and their bags stranded hundreds of miles from home. On Monday night, the federal government wants answers from Southwest Airlines about how the systemwide meltdown happened.

At Midway International Airport – where Southwest is the main carrier – the wait times were high, and patience was running low Monday night.

As CBS 2's Marybel González reported, the situation Monday night was described by a traveler as nothing short of a mess. In addition to long lines taking up space, hundreds and hundreds of bags were waiting to be claimed as the cancellations and delays kept piling up.

"It's been hell," said Denzil Smothers, whose flight was canceled. "We got here 3 in the afternoon and didn't leave the airport until after 4 in the morning."

Flight cancellations causing frustration at Chicago airports 03:01

As of Monday night, nearly 8,000 flights had been canceled nationwide. The flight tracking website FlightAware said Southwest Airlines accounted for 70 percent of those cancellations.

At Midway, there was a queue almost as long as the airport itself – with folks waiting to speak to a Southwest agent.

Suzanne and Eric Yesse said they had been stuck at the airport for two days. They spent their Christmas holiday at Midway – trying to get back home to Colorado.

"This is clearly a crisis from coast to coast," said Suzanne Yesse. "It is hard to be away from my family, and I would love to see my children sometime before 2023."

Like many others, the Yesses had to check into a hotel overnight after waiting all day until 3 a.m. to get on a flight.

"We don't actually have a flight, but we're hopeful - because there were flights that were cancelled that are now showing available," said Suzanne Yesse.

Other travelers, like Kevin Wilson, spent Monday night sleeping at the airport.

"I think standing in lines, and not knowing what was going on was probalby the most difficult part; just going, 'Okay, what's gonna happen, when's it gonna happen, how's it gonna happen? Well, it never happened" Wilson said as he waited to fly to Texas..

Peggy Scott, who is trying to fly to Las Vegas said, "You know, you just gotta roll with it. You can't do much about it."

"You know, I've flown Southwest for 30 years, and I never had a problem, never. And I don't know now. I'm just sort of in limbo," she added.

Baggage claim at Midway has been congested, with thousands of bags separated from their owners creating a sea of luggage around baggage carousels.

"We came without extended family - so altogether with 24 bags - and we can't find a single one," said Abdalleh Saleh.

"I actually flew from Tampa; should've been here Saturday morning," said David Pinto. "My baggage is here, but I can't find it."

Smothers did not make it out of Chicago at all due to the cancellations. But his bag somehow did. Where is it?

"We don't know, and they don't know," he said. "They can't find it."

We reached out to Southwest Airlines. They said they are working to address the disruptions, but anticipate more changes to their already-reduced level of flights as we approach the New Year holiday.

This was the full statement from Southwest Airlines:

"With consecutive days of extreme winter weather across our network behind us, continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable.

"And our heartfelt apologies for this are just beginning.

"We're working with Safety at the forefront to urgently address wide-scale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning Crews and our fleet ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us.

"We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. This forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.

"This safety-first work is intentional, ongoing, and necessary to return to normal reliability, one that minimizes last-minute inconveniences. We anticipate additional changes with an already reduced level of flights as we approach the coming New Year holiday travel period. And we're working to reach to Customers whose travel plans will change with specific information and their available options.

"Our Employees and Crews scheduled to work this holiday season are showing up in every single way. We are beyond grateful for that. Our shared goal is to take care of every single Customer with the Hospitality and Heart for which we're known.

"On the other side of this, we'll work to make things right for those we've let down, including our Employees.

"With no concern higher than ultimate Safety, the People of Southwest share a goal to take care of each and every Customer. We recognize falling short and sincerely apologize."</blockquote>

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation tweeted this statement of concern about Southwest's record in recent days:

"USDOT is concerned by Southwest's unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service. The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan."

Southwest cancels thousands more flights, stranding travelers 03:21

As of 11 a.m. Tuesday, a total of 240 Southwest flights had been canceled at Midway, or about 55 percent of their flights at Midway; and 39 Southwest flights had been canceled at O'Hare International Airport, or about 69 percent of the airline's flights at O'Hare. Overall, Southwest had canceled more than 2,500 flights nationwide as of 11 a.m., or about 63% of its overall schedule. Southwest's cancellations accounted for nearly 87% of all canceled flights in the U.S.

Janice and Michael Webb are from Chicago, but live in Tucson. They were visiting family in Chicago, and had booked a nonstop flight back to Tucson on Christmas Eve, but it was canceled. They rebooked for Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., with a layover in Las Vegas, but when they got to Midway, they learned they wouldn't be flying home Tuesday either.

"The Vegas line from Chicago to Vegas is still on. It's just that from Vegas to Tucson, it is canceled," Janice said. "I would not be able to get out until Sunday. So that's where we're at right now."

"I had family come back and pick us up, and hang out just for another week or two till Sunday, and come back and give it a try again. Somewhat a little frustrating, but you know, you're just going to have to maintain and deal with it, and keep this off your mind, right?" Michael said.

Some travelers are being told they won't be flying out until New Year's Eve or New year's Day. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.