Travel Meltdowns in Recent History

Waiting in an airport customer service line for hours to talk to a representative who ultimately couldn’t help. Spending half the day on hold to reach an agent. Having to sleep while leaning against a suitcase in the middle of a busy terminal. And finally being able to rebook a flight only for it to be days away.

They’re among the worst-case scenarios for travelers when flying. And in some notable instances, seemingly routine events like severe weather or technological issues can careen out of control, leaving thousands of people stranded and feeling helpless.

It has been the fate of many Southwest passengers this week, as the airline struggled to recover from a winter storm that affected much of the United States. Thousands of Southwest flights have been delayed or canceled in recent days, far more than for other airlines, and complaints on social media have portrayed the customer service response as severely lacking.

Here’s a look at a few other notable airline meltdowns that left passengers stranded and frustrated.

Delta canceled more than 3,500 flights over five days when storms hit Atlanta, the carrier’s main hub, creating a cascading effect as the airline struggled to meet its staffing needs and rebook passengers.

Thunderstorms lasted just a few hours in Atlanta, but they wreaked havoc on Delta’s staffing schedule across the country. The airline’s offer of free pizza lifted thousands of stranded customers’ moods only slightly.

The first night, a problem with weather data prevented Southwest from flying safely. The next day, more technological problems, described as failures in “network connectivity,” plagued the airline, forcing it to cancel or delay half of its flights.

The disrupted flights continued for days while the airline recovered, coming at a time when demand for travel began increasing as coronavirus restrictions were eased.

Longstanding plans — including those of some Boston Marathon runners — were scuttled when Southwest canceled more than 1,800 flights over one weekend. It began with “weather challenges in our Florida airports,” and was compounded by “unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region,” the airline said.

It was exacerbated by the airline running fewer flights than before the pandemic, the airline said.

Staffing shortages at Heathrow Airport in London, along with surging demand and a baggage system malfunction, caused thousands of bags to go missing. At one point, Delta filled a plane bound for Detroit with 1,000 pieces of stranded luggage to help reunite the bags with their owners across the United States.

The airport would curb the number of departing passengers until September, but it still struggled with long lines and lost luggage.

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