Eyewitness to the Southwest Meltdown

On Christmas Eve, things were neither calm nor bright at many of the nation’s airports. A massive snowstorm had caused the delay or cancellation of thousands of flights, including hundreds in Nashville. But when I checked my messages before leaving home to fly to Denver that morning and found nothing from Southwest Airlines, off I went.

The temperature in Cookeville was two degrees above zero, so—just in case–into the back seat of my car went my down coat, a wool scarf, and a polar fleece cap and mittens. Drinking water. Snacks. A candle and a phone charger. My gas tank was full and my tires were aired up. I was as prepared-for-anything as I knew how to be. The drive to Nashville was quick and uneventful. No wrecks, no delays. I arrived at the hotel where I usually park—it being a good deal cheaper than “economy” parking at the airport—at noon and found the shuttle driver waiting for me.

“Have you checked on your flight?” he asked. “We’re hearing there’s lots of trouble at BNA.”

I opened my e-mail and saw that my 2:45 departure had been delayed until 3:30. No big deal. I’d have plenty of time to check my bag, which held presents and also my empty Christmas stocking because I hoped Santa knew I’d be in Denver. I’d have a chance to peruse the shops and grab some lunch. Shouldering my backpack and wheeling my paprika-colored suitcase into the airport, I found a vacant Southwest kiosk. I printed my boarding pass and tagged my bag and handed it over to the man at the counter, who seemed to have left his cheerful attitude at home.

Then I made my way to the arrival/ departure board and located my flight. Rats! Delayed until 6:30. But there was nothing to be done but empty my water bottle and take off my sweater and shoes and merge into a long and slow-moving security line. Might as well make the best of a not-all-that-terrible situation, I figured.  The airport was warm and dry. It was filled with restaurants and restrooms. I had two books, an empty 80-page steno pad and plenty of ink pens in my backpack, along with a fully-charged cell phone.

Plenty to keep me happily busy, right?

Yeah but. As the afternoon wore on, my departure time changed over and over again, as did my gate. The airport grew noisier and more crowded. I began hearing horror stories from Southwest passengers who’d spent a night or two at the Atlanta airport or the Miami airport or the Charlotte airport. From Nashville, many of them were trying to get to Denver. Was this to be my fate, stretched out on the hard floor using my backpack for a pillow the same way cowboys in the Old West used their saddles?

The hours of Christmas Eve were passing away when along came the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back. At long last, my fellow travelers and I had been told to line up for our 7:00 flight. Joyous hallelujahs echoed through the waiting area. Five minutes later, we were told the flight was cancelled. The plane was at the gate, but Southwest couldn’t put a crew together. There would be no more flights to Denver until Tuesday. Several passengers, including me, burst into tears. But before we could figure out what to do next, there came another announcement. Stay put, we were told. The flight was back on.

Three hours later, the plane touched down in Denver. And wonder of wonders, among hundreds and hundreds of bags near the luggage carousels, I spotted my paprika-colored suitcase with the stocking inside. And on Christmas morning, surrounded by daughter Meg and her family, I found inside that stocking a yo-yo and a book of poetry and some gardening gloves.

Santa, it seems, had been watching over me all along.

(January 7, 2023)