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Frustrated Southwest passengers are still waiting for bags

Customers have spent hours on hold and taken multiple trips to the airport, but still no luggage

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)

Bianca Carrasco has not seen her hard-shell purple Samsonite suitcase since she checked it at the Boston airport on Dec. 23.

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

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

“It left Boston and then jettisoned into space, I guess,” said Carrasco, 32, an administrator at a university and comedy club performer.

While Southwest returned to operating its typical schedule on Friday, an untold number of checked bags — many of which took the trips that passengers could not — remain missing. The airline could not provide figures on how many bags had been returned to owners or how many were still outstanding, but social media is teeming with complaints.

Southwest offers 25,000 points to passengers stranded by meltdown

“We are making good progress in reuniting Customers with their bags,” Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said in an email Tuesday. “Given the scale and magnitude of the disruption, it is taking some time but our teams are doing a tremendous job of sorting bags, scanning them and preparing them for return to Customers in the many different avenues we are exercising to do so.”

In interviews with The Washington Post, frustrated travelers recounted spending hours in line, returning to airports multiple times, calling customer service repeatedly, hunting around baggage areas to no avail and filing claims into the void — and still, no luggage.

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

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

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Jan. 3 spoke about the thousands of Southwest Airlines flights that were canceled during holiday travel. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I’m not optimistic, given their track record so far,” Demske said. “Nor am I overly optimistic that Southwest has a grasp of the magnitude of the baggage problem.”

We’ve lost our luggage, and our minds

For Dallas resident Candace Hughes, a third party is now involved: FedEx. Hughes’s flight to Raleigh, N.C., where she planned to spend Christmas with her fiance and his family, was canceled. So were 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 that they had no idea where my luggage went,” she said via an Instagram direct message. “Then they told me that it went to my destination, which I still do not understand how that works because my flight got canceled.”

On Dec. 28, the airline informed her that it had located her luggage in Raleigh; the agent said FedEx would overnight her belongings to Dallas. Her luggage did not arrive the following day, and nearly a week later, it has still not appeared at her doorstep.

Perry, the airline spokesman, said it is in line with approved procedures for bags to travel without customers on a flight. The airline is “making every attempt to return” bags to travelers, he said.

“Given the scale of the disruption, it is taking a bit longer than normal,” he said.

Southwest Airlines faces lawsuit after mass cancellations

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

“There’s no question that Southwest handles more bags every day than other domestic carriers, since there is no financial incentive for passengers to cram everything into carry-ons with Southwest,” William J. McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, said in an email. “Undoubtedly this contributed to the baggage fiasco last week.”

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

Travel analyst Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, said the operational confusion, cancellations and general chaos were a “recipe for disaster” at the airline — and the still-ongoing baggage situation remains the “most tangible” reminder of that meltdown.

What to know about Southwest refunds, rebooking and lost luggage

He said the recovery process is complicated by the fact that there is likely a significant amount of manual outreach such as emails, texts or phone calls required to reach people who have been separated from their luggage. Travelers who need help with lost bags can fill out a request online.

“It is worrisome that Southwest can’t tell a customer ‘We know where your bag is,’” Harteveldt said. “As part of their postmortem assessment of this disruption, Southwest needs to examine its baggage tracing software and make sure they have what they need.”

A representative for the airline did tell traveler Theresa J. Cole, 51, they had found her bag, on Dec. 29. She had checked her luggage Dec. 23 for a flight from Denver to Houston, but it was canceled and she had no luck finding the bag in the days after. She eventually made the trip on Christmas Day; still no bag.

At the baggage claim office on the day of her return flight, an employee told Cole she would need to pick up the bag at 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 refused because I had no faith that the process would be quick and easy,” she said. The employee offered to ship her bag via FedEx. Cole agreed and left Houston “feeling a great sense of relief.”

Now home in Denver, her frustration is back on the rise. She has been calling customer service with little success and tried filling out the baggage claim form, but the link didn’t work.

“I’m honestly exhausted of this process,” she said.

So is 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 gifts and other items, did not. On Tuesday, she said in an email, she was on her 11th day without her luggage, despite multiple efforts to track it down over the last week and a half.

“Southwest was once my absolute favorite airline,” said Thompson, a clerical specialist for a finance company. “Due to their negligence, lack of respect and communication, they completely ruined Christmas and I will never spend another dollar with them.”

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