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With dozens of Southwest flights idled, frustrated KCI passengers look for a ride or a refund

A screen shows Southwest Airlines arrivals on time to Kansas City, but more than half of the departures were canceled
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Southwest canceled more than 60% of its flights nationwide and 70% of its flights out of Kansas City. As the airline recovers, it plans to run about one third of its total amount of flights in the coming days.

The airline canceled more than 70% of its flights through Kansas City on Tuesday, continuing a days-long streak of cancellations. Customers at the airport struggled to replan travel accommodations and get their luggage back as communication with the company stalled.

On Tuesday morning, 11-year-old Landon Hunt stood with his mom, Katrina Smith, in a long line for the Southwest Airlines counter at the Kansas City Airport.

“Yesterday we were here and the line was all the way down to the first gate,” Hunt said. “We made it about to the entrance point of the gates, and then I got my flight canceled.”

Hunt plans to visit his grandma as an unaccompanied minor over the holiday weekend. Smith, who is a nurse working New Year’s Eve, said it’s important for her son to be with family on New Year’s Eve instead of alone.

“That's his favorite person,” Smith said. “So he is definitely bummed if he doesn't get to go.”

Smith’s dad works for Southwest in Nashville. When Hunt’s original flight was canceled, she said her parents had to call the airline more than 40 times and were on hold for hours before they were able to reschedule his flight for today.

“We saw that pretty much every other flight but two flights from Kansas City to Nashville were canceled this morning, and his was one of the ones that weren't canceled,” Smith said. “My dad got an email saying that they might not let unaccompanied minors fly today but we haven't been notified. So we're just patiently waiting and hoping they let him on the plane.”

Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,900 flights nationwide Monday. As of 2 p.m Tuesday, it had canceled nearly 2,600 more flights and delayed almost 500 flights, according to FlightAware.

That’s more than 30 times the amount of flights canceled by the next-highest domestic airline, Spirit Airlines, and more than 38 times the amount of flights United Airlines had canceled by Tuesday afternoon. In Kansas City, the airline has canceled more than 80 flights and delayed 13 as of 2 p.m. Tuesday. That’s up from Monday, when the airline canceled 75 flights and delayed 21.

A woman with long brown hair in a grey hoodie stands with her left arm around a boy in a yellow hoodie with anime on the front
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Landon Hunt has plans to visit his grandmother, which he regularly does unaccompanied. After Southwest canceled his original flight, he's hoping he can catch another one today.

Chris Perry, a Southwest spokesperson, said the multiple days of extreme weather impacted the airline nationwide. In a statement, the airline said it was working to address the wide-scale disruption by “repositioning crews and our fleet.”

“Continuing challenges are impacting our Customers and Employees in a significant way that is unacceptable,” the company said in a statement. “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.”

That apology doesn’t cut it for Valisa and Shawn Juarez, who drove two hours from Manhattan, Kansas, to the Kansas City Airport only to find out their flight to Sacramento was canceled. They said the airline did not communicate with them about the cancellation and they could not reach customer service.

“I'm trying to see my family for the holidays, see my nephews,” said Shawn Juarez, “but I just come to get inconvenienced and I shouldn't have to wait this long to be put on another flight.”

Valisa said they need to leave the airport with either a refund or a new flight.

“We're only gonna be there for three days, so if we can't fly out today, then we're gonna be there for like two nights,” she said.

No matter the outcome, the pair agreed they won’t be flying Southwest again.

“I should have just went Spirit and saved some money,” Shawn said. “I might have already been at my destination.”

Further down the line, Shelby Smith had given up trying to reschedule her flight and was hoping to get a refund.

Her original flight from Utah to Kansas City on Christmas Eve got rescheduled to Christmas Day. But when she got stranded on a layover in Denver, she decided to rent a car and drive the rest of the way.

“I am here at the airport right now just trying to get money back because I couldn't get ahold of them on the phone — it kept on hanging up,” Smith said. “My return flight isn't until Sunday, but I am most likely going to try and get my money back for that one and schedule with a different airline.”

After three days, Smith still hasn’t received her luggage from Southwest, which contains her family’s Christmas gifts. She’s still hoping they deliver it before she has to go back to Utah.

A man with a burgundy coat stands next to a small child in a pink sweater and a boy in an orange coat. A woman with a pink puffer coat stands on the right.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Rawan Qasim (right) and Rami Diab (left) had plans to take their children to Chicago on a family vacation. After Southwest canceled their flight, they're not sure they'll be able to go at all.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a tweet that it is “concerned by Southwest’s unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays & reports of lack of prompt customer service.”

The agency announced it will investigate if the cancellations were controllable and if the airline is complying with its customer service plan.

Rawan Qasim and Rami Diab were in line at the Southwest gate, hoping they wouldn’t have to cancel their family trip to Chicago entirely.

Their original flight was canceled, and they were told they wouldn’t be able to reschedule until after the new year.

“We are just waiting to check with them if they can book us on another airline or something like that,” Diab said. “With the delay to January 3, it’s the winter break so (our son) is going back to school on January 6.”

If they can’t get rebooked onto another airline or catch a different flight with Southwest, Qasim and Diab said they will have to cancel their family trip. With a long line still ahead of them, Qasim remained hopeful.

“I hope to hear good news now, and for the trip not to be canceled,” she said.

Perry said the news that Southwest is not rescheduling any flights until the new year “isn’t necessarily accurate.” The airline said in a statementthat it will only fly about one third of its schedule for several days as it works to reach its normal operating capacity.

“Inventory available to book flights across our Network is very low — and nearly all flights currently show unavailable on Southwest.com — but we are still operating flights,” Perry said. “We don’t have a date when that will change as so much is changing quickly in the live environment.”

No matter the reasoning, Landon Hunt remained hopeful that the airline wouldn’t cancel his second attempt to fly to Nashville.

“I just want to get on an airplane,” he said.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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