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Salt Lake City travelers are still battling through Southwest’s holiday meltdown

Christmas travel, winter weather cancelations, Southwest customer line, Salt Lake City Airport, Dec. 27, 2022
Saige Miller
Southwest customers wait in line at the check-in counter at the Salt Lake City International Airport following a slew of flight cancellations on Dec. 27, 2022.

Travelers waiting to arrange new Southwest Airlines flights stretched past the queue at Salt Lake City International Airport late Tuesday morning.

Many were conversing about their travel woes with those standing next to them. That was the case for Alisha Barnes, who discovered that morning that her connecting flight from Houston to Birmingham was canceled.

“I'm tryin’ to keep positive, tryin’ to stay positive about this day before I have a meltdown,” she said with her baby girl strapped on her chest and juggling a luggage carrier piled high with suitcases, “because I’m ready to go home.”

Barnes has been in Salt Lake with her daughter since Wednesday and said her visit has been great, “except this right here,” nodding to the long line in front of her.

Ben Eaton was supposed to return home to Houston on Monday. Instead, he was one of the many people standing in the Southwest check-in line hoping to make the next available flight.

“Well, I got canceled yesterday. We made another arrangement to fly. They canceled that. And I'm just hoping to see if I can get on the 12:45 flight back to Houston, which I doubt very much,” he said.

The SLC airport website indicates that the flight Eaton was hoping for did take off, but it’s unclear if he made it. Not to worry though, Eaton had booked a backup through Delta for Wednesday. So one way or another, he was returning to Houston.

Eaton and Barnes are hardly alone.

A day after most U.S. airlines had recovered from winter weather, Southwest called off about 2,600 more flights on the East Coast by late afternoon. Those flights accounted for more than 80% of the 3,000 trips that got canceled nationwide Tuesday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

And the chaos seemed certain to continue. The airline also scrubbed 2,500 flights for Wednesday and nearly 1,400 for Thursday as it tried to restore order to its mangled schedule.

At Salt Lake International, 60 flights into or out of the airport were canceled on Tuesday. Of those scrubbed, 69% are Southwest flights. That number is projected to increase throughout the day, and cancellations will stretch into Wednesday.

The airline meltdown has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The agency said it plans to investigate why Southwest has failed to return to the tarmac in a timely manner.

The Dallas-based airline had little news to say about its woes. The company did not offer any updates Tuesday afternoon. Its website gave customers the chance to change or cancel flights while warning that the phone system was “very busy due to high demand.”

While customers in Salt Lake City crossed their fingers for a new flight, a mountain of unclaimed luggage remained roped off at the airline’s baggage claim. Monica Cedillo stood nearby waiting to speak with an agent with the hopes that one of the many pieces of luggage was hers.

Cedillo planned to arrive in Salt Lake City from Texas on Christmas Day to spend time with her daughter and grandchildren. The plane made it to her layover in Las Vegas but the connection was canceled.

“The best flight they [Southwest] could offer me was Wednesday,” Cedillo said. “So I said, ‘I'll just drive here.’ I came to see my grandkids. I'm going to see them.”

She was able to jump on a Greyhound bus, without her luggage, to St. George where her daughter picked her up. Now it was a search for her bag.

“I'm praying that it's there. It's mostly because the gifts for my grandkids are here. I can replace clothes, but I mean, I brought the kids gifts,” she said.

Christmas travel, winter weather cancelations, stranded baggage, Salt Lake City Airport, Dec. 27, 2022
Saige Miller
Tons of checked bags roped off at the Southwest baggage claims at Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 27, 2022. The baggage arrived in Salt Lake City before fliers could due to canceled flights.

Cedillo understood that flights get canceled, but she couldn’t get over the lack of communication from Southwest. Cedillo added the airline left her hanging on whether the flight to Salt Lake was nixed, but the internet told her it was.

And when she tried to make other accommodations, Cedillo said no agent would answer the phone and the Southwest website was down.

“If they would just talk to us, not at us or just avoid us, it would make things A whole lot better,” she said.

Bruno Wiler, the man waiting behind Cedillo at baggage claim, had different feelings. He hoped to retrieve his daughter’s bags after her flight from Texas was axed. Instead of flying, Wiler convinced his daughter to rent a car and make the 20-hour journey to Salt Lake.

The whole second-hand travel experience left Wiler with one lesson:

“We are not flying Southwest anymore.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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