(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — It’s an annual tradition for people across the country to brave the bustling airports and hope the weather holds out to travel home for holiday celebrations. Thousands of travelers across the country this year saw their travel plans stymied by winter weather. Now, a federal department plans to look into a specific airline’s handling of the holiday mess, and a U.S. Senate investigation has been promised.
While many flights at many airports were impacted over the holiday travel season, Southwest Airlines continues to struggle to rebound from its winter woes. According to an Associated Press report, some 2,500 flights were canceled on Wednesday, Dec. 28. That accounted for more than 91% of canceled flights on Wednesday morning. And in the past week, the airline had canceled nearly 10,000 flights and was warning of thousands more Thursday and Friday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his agency will look into the causes of the cancelations and Southwest’s legal obligations to its customers.
Esprit Westbrook now lives in San Diego, California. She was traveling home to Erie to spend the holidays with her family when she was stranded for nearly three days at an airport in Chicago. She was in airports from 4:30 a.m. Dec. 24 until 4 p.m. Dec. 26.
“There was a delay for my first flight from San Diego to Chicago, and it was supposed to be from San Diego to Chicago to Cleveland, however we changed the flight to Pittsburgh just to try to get home like everybody was,” Westbrook said. “Once I got to Chicago, that’s when Hell broke lose for everybody. It was surprising to me the lack of care from Southwest, because there was constant delays and there would be no information. We were all kind of like sitting cows… we were constantly waiting with the hope of finally getting out of here, and they would just suddenly cancel.”
While most travelers endure holiday travel stress for several hours, Westbrook was made to endure for days.
“I was looking and hoping for lodging — some kind of lodging-provided refunds. I waited in a four-hour line full of 80-plus people until about 11 p.m. or midnight. I finally got to the front desk where Southwest Airlines systems were going down, and a customer service agent said to me, ‘Sorry, we don’t provide lodging because this is due to weather, and I would recommend that if you sleep here, you should sleep on the right side of the airport,'” Westbrook recalled. “That’s when I got tears in my eyes and thought I’m officially stuck at the Chicago airport. This is crazy.”
She took a shuttle to a nearby hotel. Westbrook’s father, Steve Westbrook, drove to Chicago to pick her up on her third day of being stranded at the airport. By then, she had stayed two nights at hotels and spent nearly three full days in the airport.
“It was scary, and it was weird. Very weird,” Westbrook said. “I would love to get full refunds for everything I’ve paid for. Nothing has been refunded. I’ve gotten no vouchers. I’ve gotten nothing. I was a young female stuck at the Chicago airport for three days and two nights, and I got nada.”
The experience has tarnished her traveling spirit.
“I don’t even want to think about flying anymore,” she said. “Anyone who knows me knows that I have always been a calm traveler, and I absolutely love traveling and love flying. This has 100% hindered the experience. I have to fly back to California at some point, but I don’t really want to after this.”
The family celebrates Christmas. Ultimately, Westbrook and her father arrived in Erie late at night on Dec. 26 — a day late. They still opened gifts together as a family and celebrated the holiday.
“Christmas isn’t a day — you can celebrate Christmas whenever or wherever with those you love,” Westbrook said.
She said she won’t book flights with Southwest Airlines again.
While Westbrook’s travel woes are over (for now), Southwest’s problems continue and travelers continue to be impacted. The Senate Commerce Committee has promised an investigation, with two Senate Democrats calling on Southwest to provide “significant” compensation for stranded travelers, the Associated Press report said.
In a video that Southwest posted late Tuesday, CEO Robert Jordan said Southwest hoped to be “back on track before next week.”
Jordan blamed the winter storm for snarling the airline’s “highly complex” network. He said Southwest’s tools for recovering from disruptions work “99% of the time, but clearly we need to double down” on upgrading systems to avoid a repeat of this week.
“We have some real work to do in making this right,” Jordan said. “For now, I want you to know that we are committed to that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.