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A morning at Midway: Travelers returning to Chicago after holidays face long lines, delays

With winter weather delaying flights and COVID-19 spurring staff shortages, many travelers returning to the city Sunday or early Monday waited hours just to get their luggage.

Travelers wait in the baggage claim area at Midway Airport for their checked luggage to arrive early Monday morning, Jan. 3, 2022.
Travelers wait in the baggage claim area at Midway Airport for their checked luggage to arrive early Monday morning.
Madeline Kenney/Sun-Times

Between winter weather and short staffing due to the Omicron surge, the post-holiday rush back to real life hit hard Monday morning for many Southwest Airlines passengers returning to Chicago.

Some travelers at the airport late Sunday said they had waited more than three hours for their checked luggage.

Hannah Kreiner, 25, of Hyde Park, said she’s never experienced anything like this from an airline before. She landed from Austin, Texas, late Sunday and sat on the tarmac until after midnight; she said passengers were told it was because there was no gate crew available. At 4:16 a.m., she was still waiting for her luggage.

She said if Southwest had just been up front about the situation it would have been easier to deal with.

“They were not very helpful and they were getting pretty angry with people because they were angry for waiting,” she said. “So I think just overall, it was a pretty bad experience. Definitely doesn’t make me want to fly Southwest again.”

A Southwest supervisor at one of the gates told the crowd the delays were due to a staff shortage.

“It’s clear that we’ve been impacted by the weather that’s taken place earlier on this week, in which this has left our Crew displaced,” a Southwest representative told a Sun-Times reporter via a Twitter direct message.

“We know our Customers are feeling the brunt of these irregular operations, and I’m sorry to see your travel to Chicago was delayed as a result of this.”

Michelle Pham, a medical school student from Waukegan whose flight into Chicago from Las Vegas was delayed, arrived Sunday evening. By then, she said, some people already had been waiting for about three and a half hours for their checked luggage.

“They said that they were just short staffed and at midnight, everybody just clocked off. And so they were working with a skeleton crew and then they said that the next shift won’t come ’til 4:30 a.m.,” Pham said.

She said she normally never checks a bag, but she did this time because she had Christmas gifts. She waited hours for her luggage.

“At this point, I don’t even want my Christmas gifts anymore. It’s fine. Grandma can keep her cookies. I don’t want them,” Pham said. “... There has to be some stuff I would feel that they should have prepared for this kind of logistic, like knowing how last year was and how this year’s travel was.”

Asked for comment on Monday, Southwest blamed the weather:

“As winter storms have affected our operation in several cities over the last several days, our Teams are working as quickly as possible to get our Customers to their destinations as quickly as possible.

With winter conditions present at several airports we serve, we’ve implemented additional safety protocols for our People working in and around our aircraft, which could slow the overall operation including moving luggage to and from the aircraft.

We appreciate our Customers’ patience during these extreme weather events as there’s no higher priority to us than the Safety of our People and Customers. We always encourage Customers to visit Southwest.com or the Southwest Airlines mobile app to view their flight status or to make changes to their itineraries.”

Michelle Orth, who was on vacation with her family in Las Vegas and lives an hour away in Highland, Indiana, she said the lack of information from Southwest is what’s really frustrating.

When she asked one of the employees what to do about their baggage, she said the employee told her to come back and get her luggage later. She said she couldn’t do that; the employee, Orth said, said that wasn’t her problem.

“I get it for her right now it’s frustrating,” Orth said. “But since they’re not giving us any information at all, yeah, it’s just creating a lot of frustration and anxiety in passengers.”