CHICAGO — Southwest Airlines has canceled thousands of flights across the country, leaving passengers stranded in post-Christmas chaos at the nation’s airports, including Chicago’s Midway International. 

With nearly 6,000 delays nationwide on Monday and 3,600 flight cancellations, Southwest Airlines accounts for many of those problems. Data shows that the Dallas-based airline has canceled more than half of its flights, accounting for 2,300 thus far.

The mess at Midway has caused many travelers to call the airport home since Thursday.

Customers across the country have sounded off on social media about problems with lost bags, long lines at customer service counters and an overwhelmed phone system where they get busy signals and are put on hold for hours. 

Southwest representatives report the airline is experiencing disruptions across its network due to the storm’s lingering effects on its entire operation. 

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. These operational conditions 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.

Southwest Airlines

Some passengers told WGN News, however, that they’ve learned a pilot shortage is also to blame. 

Midway, as well as Denver, Las Vegas, Baltimore and Dallas/Fort Worth airports, are experiencing the worst problems. 

On Monday, 100 delays and 294 cancellations and 663 delays and 116 cancellations were reported at Midway and O’Hare, respectively.

“USDOT is concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service,” the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a tweet. “The Department will examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.”

Kenneth Vaughn is one of the many travelers affected.

Vaughn told WGN News that he flew into Midway for his mother-in-law’s funeral and was supposed to head back to Las Vegas on Saturday, but on the Monday after Christmas, he remained at the airport searching for a way home.

“We were supposed to fly out on Saturday. They canceled our flight Saturday and actually rebooked it four times,” Vaughn said. “The app crashed. We were on hold for six hours with Southwest. Finally, we decided to come here today to get a flight out and they told us the first flight out would be this Friday. I said, ‘that’s unacceptable, we need to get back for work and for life,’ and right now, as you can see, we’re in a five-hour line to get up here to talk to somebody.”

Another nightmare is the baggage area downstairs, where travelers report that their luggage has either been lost or hundreds more piled up on one another.  

Michelle Vellanoweth and her husband Raul have been stranded in Chicago since Thursday night. They are without their luggage, which is in Oklahoma City.

They have been sleeping at Midway.

“How do they fly our clothes to Oklahoma but not us? How does that happen?” Michelle asked.

Raul said all of the hotel rooms they looked at and rental cars are gone.

They are among the sea of passengers standing at the customer service line for Southwest Airlines.

“They told us our first flight would be this Friday,” Raul said. “I said ‘That’s unacceptable. We need to get back for work and for life.’ As you can see, we are in a five hour line just to get up here and to talk to some body.”

Megan Lemmons, whose flight to Ft. Myers, Florida, was canceled, is dealing with the mess in the baggage claim.

“I’ve been told flights that are canceled today, luggage can be found between carousels four and six. So far, all the luggage I’ve found has been final destination MDW,” Lemmons said. “I haven’t seen any luggage that was going elsewhere.”

Lyn Montgomery, the president of TWU Local 556, the union representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants, blames the company for refusing to update what she calls an outdated operations system.

“The saddest thing about this is it could have been preventable,” Montgomery said. “The systems were not able to keep up with Winter Storm Elliott. So while it may have been initially generated by the winter storm, it is being exacerbated by the fact that Southwest Airlines has not invested enough in its technological infrastructure, which has led to this chaos we’re all feeling right now.”

Thousands of crews are stranded as well, Montgomery said. Crew members also have to use a dial-in phone system to call and find flight reassignments.

Many of them, she said, were on hold for up to 17 hours.

“When you can’t get in touch with crew rescheduling, you can’t make your reassignments,” Montgomery said.