It’s not just thousands of people with canceled Southwest Airlines flights being stranded at airports across the nation, but also thousands of pieces of their checked in luggage – even if the owner never got on a flight.
Some passengers said they have been separated from baby gear, medicine and other important items because they didn’t anticipate being separated from their baggage for so long.
At Honolulu International Airport, Southwest passenger Crystal Muñoz had to sort through over “easily 75 bags jammed together” to find her family’s suitcases when her husband rebooked their flight to Maui on Hawaiian Airlines.
“It was a free for all and then they had to move them for another flight’s incoming luggage,” she told USA TODAY. “Anyone could have taken any bag.” The family eventually made it to Maui that night but ended up paying over $1,000 in extra costs.
She and her family are among thousands of people who have lost both time and money over their holiday travel plans as Southwest cancelled more than 2,500 flights Wednesday, after roughly 5,600 cancellations Monday and Tuesday, according to FlightAware.
In the immediate aftermath of the thousands of flight cancellations, many stranded Southwest Airlines passengers have been given little to no information on where their checked bags may be or end up, leading to frustration and hundreds of their own dollars spent on hotels and clothes.
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Southwest Airlines’ ‘meltdown’
On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Buttigieg told CNN that he met with Southwest Airlines’ CEO Bob Jordan and will hold the airline accountable for the “meltdown,” and potentially pursue fines.
“I conveyed to the CEO our expectation that they’re going to go above and beyond to take care of passengers and to address this,” he said.
The Department of Transportation requires airlines to compensate passengers for damaged, delayed or lost bags. This includes the contents of the bags, up to $3,800 (although the airline can choose to pay more.)
Severe bad weather over Christmas week forced the airline to make operational changes and while other airlines bounced back quickly, Buttigieg told CNN that Southwest’s “system has really completely melted down.”
The airline told USA TODAY that “baggage is difficult to recover” following the large disruption of their operation schedule this week and that its customer service lines are experiencing “abnormally high call volumes.”
Travelers can file a baggage report online or in-person at the airport to get reunited with their luggage, a Southwest Airlines spokesperson said.
Southwest Airlines said they “will make every attempt to reconnect customers with their baggage at no cost to the customer.”
How are people finding their lost bags?
Every day since Saturday, Sarah Farrell has been going to Denver International Airport in hopes that her checked luggage – packed with gear for their toddler and Christmas presents for the family – will show up.
Her family’s Saturday flight to Florida to spend Christmas with her husband’s family was canceled and they were unable to rebook another affordable flight. This trip was going to be the first time her kids would meet their cousins, a meeting delayed due to the pandemic, she said.
Farrell said she was told by baggage agents for the airline that “they may or may not ever go to your destination… there’s nothing we can do.” On Christmas Day, she said she spent seven hours on hold with the airline’s customer service only to have the call dropped.
She’s worried that her bags do end up in Florida.
People like Farrell have taken to social media to crowdsource and locate each other’s items out of the collective frustration. Farrell has helped owners find musical instruments, strollers and car seats by texting the phone numbers on luggage tags.
Taira Meadowcroft is one of the lucky people who learned where her bag was from someone like Farrell. On Christmas Day, Meadowcroft’s flight from St. Louis to Tampa changed its destination to Orlando after she waited approximately 11 hours at the airport. Once at Orlando International Airport, she spent two hours trying to find out if her bags arrived with her.
“(Southwest) couldn’t 100 percent say where it would end up but that they’d make a note to send it to Tampa and call me when it arrived,” she said. So she drove more than two hours home to Tampa.
On Monday evening, Meadowcroft got a text from a random number saying her bag was at Tampa International Airport.
“I definitely count myself lucky because I was without my bag a short time compared to others,” she said. “But I’m so glad that kind person texted me because I had medicine in there I forgot to put in my carry-on.” She said Southwest has never notified her about her suitcase.
What happens if your checked bag is lost? What if it’s delayed? Here’s what you’re owed, what to do.
Will people get reimbursed for extra expenses while stranded?
Federally, airlines are not required to reimburse people for hotel rooms, cabs or other non-airline ticket costs because of cancellations, so it’s up to the airline to decide. Southwest has said, “We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation.”
Stuck in Austin, Smriti Singh has spent four hours almost every day since Sunday trying to find her luggage.
Singh had just finished school at Texas A&M University and packed all her belongings in suitcases, ready to hop on a flight to San Jose on Christmas Day via Southwest Airlines. She said she spent hours standing in lines at the airport to finally get rebooked on a flight to San Jose scheduled for Wednesday.
She said she was told by the baggage office that “they can’t possible locate any bags and that people should just meet their bags at the destination whenever they reach there.”
Since then, she said she’s spent about $450 for food, clothes, transportation and a hotel as she hopes her Wednesday flight takes off.
“I have been loyally flying with them for a long time but this has been a horrible experience,” she said.
“I need them to take responsibility for this major mismanagement, offer compensation for my expenses here,” she said. “And either send me updates on where my bag is or if I have lost everything.”
What happens if your checked bag is lost:What if it’s delayed? Here’s what you’re owed, what to do.
How can you survive without checked bags?
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do once you lose checked in luggage, Jenita Lawal, owner of Lawal Travel Services, told USA TODAY.
Get protected:What kind of travel insurance do I need for my holiday trip?
At your destination, you can stop at a local store or pharmacy to get essentials or a thrift store for bigger items like a coat without spending a lot of money. “If you end up purchasing anything, keep your receipts for your insurance claim or reimbursement request,” for the airlines, she said.
Some types of travel insurance and credit cards will help give added protection to cover extra expenses too.
In her travel experience, Lawal rarely ever checks luggage and recommends packing light with an interchangeable wardrobe. But if you do have to check luggage, she advises keeping said to keep important documents and items like medication or keys in your carry-on. “It’s also a good idea to pack a change of clothes and some toiletries in your carry-on, especially if you are traveling for business,” she said.
“Be strategic,” she said.