WTE photojournalist shares her Southwest travel experience

Dec. 31—CHEYENNE — This holiday season, I was one of thousands of people across the country whose Southwest flight got canceled. Luckily, due to a predicted blizzard in Chicago, I had moved my flight out of Denver from Thursday night to Wednesday morning on Dec. 21.

I barely avoided the cold front that swept in that afternoon, causing a series of canceled flights. Unlike most other airlines that operate based on a hub system, in which flights leave from and return to the same central city, Southwest’s flights mimic bus routes. Their planes fly long routes and periodically touch down to refuel and pick up/drop off passengers and crew members. This year, that flight plan was their downfall.

Because Denver had to cancel so many of Southwest’s flights that day, every other flight along the route was suddenly without a plane and crew. It created a chain reaction that disrupted their entire system. So much so, that when I tried to fly back on Monday, five days later, I found that my flight was canceled.

I sat with my family for hours, checking train schedules, car rental agencies and other airlines for a way to get back to Cheyenne. I had lost hope after seeing plane tickets costing $1,500 or more for flights as late as Thursday, but was pleasantly surprised that night when a Southwest flight had opened for Wednesday. I jumped on it, and minutes later, the flight was full.

The following images are photos I took on my iPhone, documenting my experience from Midway International Airport in Chicago to Denver International Airport on Wednesday, Dec. 28.

Expecting long lines at the checked bag drop-off and security, I arrived at Midway too early to print a bag tag. Rather than large, angry hordes of people, I found a shockingly short line at security and eerily empty gates.

To kill time, of which I had ample amounts, I walked around and noticed that one side of Terminal B was crowded with baggage carts. At one point, I heard a crowd cheer loudly in the distance, and a stranger sitting next to me murmured, “They must have finally found their luggage.”

When it was nearly time to board, I started religiously reloading the Flight Tracker website to make sure my flight hadn’t been canceled. I grew suspicious when I saw the pilot making anxious gestures while talking on the phone. At one point, he was pinching the bridge of his nose beside a flight attendant who, frankly, looked defeated. Moments later, it was announced that we were short one flight attendant and had to find a replacement before we could board.

Luckily, our flight was only delayed by about 20 minutes before we were saved by a replacement flight attendant. Her arrival was met with a few cheers and many sighs of relief from passengers. After that, the crew was quick to get us in the plane and off the ground.

At baggage claim in Denver, one side of the space was sectioned off for unclaimed luggage, and the rest was occupied by passengers awaiting their bags. Just as many passengers had been left stranded after Southwest canceled their flights or they failed to make their connecting flights, so what looked like hundreds of suitcases had been left behind. According to the screens at baggage claim, my suitcase was supposed to be at carousel 2. I wound up wandering around and listening for my flight number to be yelled out by an airport employee to find my belongings.

To make matters worse, Denver was getting hit by copious amounts of snow that night, making the roads dangerous and nearly invisible to drivers. After finding my luggage, I received a call from my colleague and friend, Jasmine Hall, reporting that it would take about another two hours before she could get to the airport and that she had passed many cars that had slid off the road.

Now, the weather in Denver on Wednesday night was, of course, not the fault of Southwest. Nor were the airline’s slew of flight cancellations and delays the fault of gate agents, pilots or flight attendants. In fact, these crew members are experiencing the same frustrations as passengers. They, too, have been left stranded in cities all across the country. They, too, are powerless to fix Southwest’s scheduling debacle. They, too, just want to take off and get you home.

One flight attendant spoke over the loudspeaker before I left Chicago: “A lot of you guys thanked us for being here when you boarded, and we just wanted to say thank YOU. You guys being here means we get to be here to do the jobs we love and pay our bills.”

By today, most passengers will finally be boarding flights and returning home. As you do, please remember that the crew members are doing the best that they can. They’ve taken a lot of abuse from passengers this past week due to circumstances outside of their control. A smile and a thank you could very well make their day.

Alyte Katilius is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s staff photojournalist.

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