Column: Southwest Airlines becomes the Grinch that stole Christmas travel

Los Angeles, CA - December 27: Luis Hernandez, 61, left, Ruth Hernandez, with their dog Sissi, from Torrance, wait for ride home after their Southwest Airlines flight to Omaha got cancelled at LAX Southwest Terminal 1 on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Luis and Ruth Hernandez of Torrance, with their dog Sissi, wait at LAX for a ride home after their Southwest Airlines flight to Omaha was canceled Tuesday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The numbers tell a sobering story of Southwest Airlines’ holiday collapse: thousands of flights abruptly canceled, and thousands upon thousands of travelers stranded for days in airport terminals.

But what the stats can’t convey is the misery, anguish and utter confusion among the desperate travelers caught in that dystopian tableau — and the heartbreak of families whose Christmas was without loved ones trapped in the vortex of nature's fury and the airline's incompetence.

I know, because our family was one of them. And my Christmas won’t start until my youngest daughter walks in the door.

She was supposed to leave Oakland on Saturday and arrived at the airport with two hours to spare; only then did she learn that her flight had been canceled. She was herded into a line with hundreds of others from grounded flights, and their surreal odyssey began.

Southwest gate agents were frantically trying to rebook passengers, but their options were shrinking rapidly as planes were grounded by weather and absent flight crews. My daughter was rebooked on six different flights and spent two days shuttling between airports in Oakland and San Francisco. But all of those flights were canceled too.

As the drama wore on, the crowds of bewildered travelers grew, stuck for hours in slow-moving lines that snaked from the gates past the baggage claim and onto the walkway outside — with no clue what Southwest planned to do.

As time ran out for Christmas flights, overworked gate agents were left to deal with a restive crowd — with no relief in sight.

My daughter texted me: “I’ve seen multiple grown men break down crying when they realize there’s no way to get home in time. Girls in Christmas sweaters with tears streaming down their cheeks. Elderly women being shooed away from the gate, when they have nowhere else to go.

“And the families with children have absolutely no chance; there are little kids sleeping on the floor in shifts. It feels like a refugee camp.”

But in the midst of the tirades and tears, there was an in-the-trenches sort of camaraderie, as would-be passengers tried to make peace with the fact that they would miss Christmas with loved ones.

My daughter felt that, as strangers, including a young man with green hair and tattoos covering his arms, tried to console her.

“You’re crying that hard about not being home; you must really love your family,” he said. “Hey, that’s dope!”

And with that, she made her way back to her Oakland apartment alone and, for the first time in her life, spent Christmas without her family — while we put aside the ornaments that have always been hers to hang on the tree.

Christmas has always been fraught for my three daughters and me. Their father died one week before Christmas, when they were only 8, 5 and 3. That was decades ago, but it still casts a shadow over the holiday. We get by on our rituals and the joys of being together.

And Southwest was, in some ways, our partner in that. Two of my daughters went to college in the Bay Area and stayed — and the airline was an affordable way to keep in touch. We could fly, with "Wanna Get Away" fares, from Burbank to the Bay and back for less than it takes to fill my car’s gas tank today.

But the magnitude of the blunders this week ought to sully the airline's image. The company disrespected customers, bullied employees and tried to blame the wicked weather that blanketed the East and Midwest for a week's worth of flight staffing failures, long after the storm had subsided.

The failures were so egregious that the federal Department of Transportation plans to probe the airline's actions and examine its excuses.

You know things are beyond bad when the Southwest gate agent has to make an announcement like this, to folks waiting in Oakland for a Denver flight: I'm so sorry, guys, I know it's been many hours, but we can't find our flight attendants. We called headquarters, and no one knows where they are.

After my daughter heard this, in the midst of the unrelenting chaos, we decided it was time to find Plan B. Christmas may have passed, but we hadn't given up. So her sisters and I scoured the internet and pooled our money for her ticket home on a small, reliable private jet service that had one seat left.

By the time you read this, I hope, she will be home, adding her ornaments to our Christmas tree.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.