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Southwest passengers still waiting for bags days after collapse

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Bianca Carrasco hasn’t seen her rigid purple Samsonite suitcase since checking it off at Boston Airport on Dec. 23.

Its connecting flight on Southwest Airlines from Denver to El Paso was one of more than 15,000 airline cancellations in a holiday week meltdown that started with a monster winter storm and turned into days of travel chaos.

Family members drove 10 hours from El Paso to pick her up from the Denver airport so they could spend Christmas together. Even now that she’s back in Boston, the whereabouts of her luggage remain a mystery.

“It left Boston and then it was launched into space, I think,” said Carrasco, 32, a university administrator and comedy club performer.

While Southwest returned to operating its typical schedule on Friday, an untold number of checked bags — many of which made trips passengers couldn’t — remain missing. The airline did not provide figures on how many bags were returned to owners or how many were still pending, but social media is awash with complaints.

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“We’re making good progress getting customers together with their bags,” Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said in an email Tuesday. “Given the scale and magnitude of the outage, it is taking some time, but our teams are doing an excellent job of sorting the bags, scanning them and preparing them for return to customers in the various ways we are working to do so.”

In interviews with The Washington Post, frustrated travelers recounted spending hours in line, returning to airports multiple times, repeatedly calling customer service, searching baggage claim areas to no avail, and filing complaints on empty — and still no luggage.

“If there wasn’t so much seriousness about trying to get my family’s stuff back, I would find it comical,” said Rob Demske, whose family of four in Potomac, Maryland, had a canceled Christmas Eve flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The family was informed that the bags would still go to their destination. Then they learned that two of the four bags were in Puerto Rico. Later they heard that two were in Baltimore. Despite repeated calls and visits to the airport, they still don’t have the luggage.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Jan. 3 spoke about the thousands of Southwest Airlines flights that were canceled over the holidays. (Video: Washington Post)

“I’m not optimistic given their track record so far,” Demske said. “I am also not overly optimistic that Southwest has an understanding of the magnitude of the baggage problem.”

We lost our baggage and our minds

For Dallas resident Candace Hughes, a third party is now involved: FedEx. Hughes’ flight to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she had planned to spend Christmas with her fiance and his family, was cancelled. Just like the rest of the flights she tried to book to get there. The marketing manager never made it to North Carolina, but her luggage did.

“At first I was told they had no idea where my luggage went,” she said via an Instagram direct message. “Then they told me it went to my destination, which I still don’t understand how that works because my flight got cancelled.”

On December 28, the airline informed her that it had located her luggage in Raleigh; the agent said that FedEx would take your belongings to Dallas overnight. Her luggage didn’t arrive the next day, and almost a week later, it still hasn’t shown up on her doorstep.

Perry, the airline’s spokesman, said it complies with approved procedures for bags to travel without passengers on a flight. The airline is “making every effort to return” bags to travelers, he said.

“Given the scale of the outage, it is taking a little longer than usual,” he said.

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Southwest’s policy allowing passengers a free pair of checked bags likely contributed to the backlog of lost luggage, travel industry experts say.

“There’s no doubt that Southwest handles more bags every day than other domestic airlines, as there is no financial incentive for passengers to pack everything in Southwest’s carry-on bag,” William J. McGee, Senior Fellow of Aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project said in an email. “No doubt this contributed to last week’s luggage fiasco.”

In 2021, according to Department of Transportation data, Southwest shipped more than 99 million bags – more than any carrier in the country.

Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, said the operational confusion, cancellations and general chaos was a “recipe for disaster” at the airline – and the ongoing baggage situation remains the reminder ” more tangible” of this collapse.

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He said the recovery process is complicated by the fact that there is likely to be a significant amount of manual contact such as emails, text messages or phone calls required to reach people who have been separated from their luggage. Travelers who need assistance with lost bags can complete an application online.

“It’s concerning that Southwest can’t say to a customer, ‘We know where your bag is,’” Harteveldt said. “As part of their post mortem assessment of this outage, Southwest needs to look into their bag tracking software and make sure they have what they need.”

An airline representative told traveler Theresa J. Cole, 51, that they found her suitcase, on Dec. 29. She checked her luggage on Dec. 23 for a flight from Denver to Houston, but it got canceled and she had no luck finding her bag over the next few days. She finally made the trip on Christmas Day; still no bag.

At the baggage claim office on the day of her return flight, Cole was told by an employee that she would need to pick up her bag from an address five minutes away by car. Cole, director of operations for a nonprofit, said in an Instagram message that she didn’t want to risk missing her return flight.

“I turned it down because I didn’t believe the process would be quick and easy,” she said. The clerk offered to ship her bag via FedEx. Cole agreed and left Houston “with a great sense of relief”.

Now in Denver, his frustration has built up again. She called customer service with little success and tried filling out the bag claim form, but the link didn’t work.

“Honestly, I’m exhausted from this process,” she said.

So did Elisha Thompson, 39, of Las Vegas, who called her luggage ordeal a “nightmare.” Her Dec. 23 flight from Las Vegas to Memphis was delayed, but she still made it to her destination. The bag, which contained her favorite sweaters, winter coat, shoes, Christmas presents, and other items, did not. On Tuesday, she said by email, she was on her 11th day without luggage, despite numerous efforts to track it over the last week and a half.

“Southwest was once my absolute favorite airline,” said Thompson, a management specialist at a financial firm. “By neglect, lack of respect and communication they completely ruined Christmas and I will never spend another dollar on them.”

She added: “I still hope to one day be reunited with my bags.”