On Friday night, there were still huge delays for Southwest passengers, with no relief in sight. A line of passengers waiting for service snaked all the way through the hallway, extending the entire length of the airport. Earlier on Friday, Eyewitness News was told there was a four-hour wait. Some passengers said they aren't able to rebook flights to leave Chicago until Monday or Tuesday of next week.
To say that this is a travel mess would be a gross understatement. There are some Southwest planes getting off Friday at Midway, but the flight boards are filled with cancellations. The lines remain long Friday afternoon. From one estimate, it is taking four hours to make it from the back of the line to the ticket counter, where there are a half dozen ticket agents trying to make things work.
The day began with a sea of people in a line moving at a glacial pace. Many had questions. Few got answers. Including Sheldon Ross who was here for 13 hours yesterday, came back today, got canceled twice and got this on the phone to Southwest.
"It says the plane is on time and they want me to stand in a two day long line," said Sheldon Ross. "It takes two days to get through that line.
Many people decided to brace the cold for faster baggage check, but that was a putt-putt line too.
"Southwest employees never made an announcement," said Susan Tadey of Fort Meyers, Florida. "I didn't even know if I was in the right line."
So with bad weather, and crews out of place, Southwest canceled all its morning flights at Midway, which led to still more confusion.
"It's just frustrating," said Maya Clark of Atlanta. "No one can help. You've paid to be on a flight and no one can answer your questions."
Apart from a lot of customer unhappiness, Southwest is now looking at some significant government fines because beginning late last night Southwest had a total of 16 planes sitting on the Midway Tarmac for more than three hours.
"We sat on the plane," said delayed passenger Andrew Stauber. "It was 42-44 degrees. We drank all the coffee."
When planes sit for three hours or more, the airline, under the passenger bill of rights, is subject to big fines. And the passengers stuck Thursday night were fuming.
"They told us we were 24th in line," said delayed passenger Ralph Schilling. "They have 30 gates. They were lying to us."
There is nothing that precludes an airline from deplaning passengers and bringing them by bus to the terminal. Southwest officials said that weather conditions were too severe, making it too dangerous for passengers. One union leader says it was the weather and a shortage of ground personnel at Midway that had complicated things for Southwest.
As for the 16 planes that sat on the tarmac for over three hours into the early morning hours on Friday, the airline is subject to a fine up to $27,000 per passenger. Though, it usually ends up far less than that in a negotiated settlement.
Hundreds stranded for hours on Southwest planes
The backup began around 11 p.m. Thursday. Passengers on 16 Southwest planes say they spent two to four hours on the tarmac after landing. Delays due to the winter storm that hit Chicago and the Northeast meant there weren't open gates, the airline said.
However, the Chicago Aviation Department said all of Midway's runways had been cleared and other gates were made available to Southwest Airlines.
"Our flight landed at 11:30, 11:40 yesterday. We sat on the tarmac for, let's see, we got off the airplane just after 3 a.m., so almost 4 1/2 hours," Andrew Stauber said.
Southwest Airlines said all of those passengers arrived safely and that the delays were three hours. If the U.S. Department of Transportation or the FAA determines the people waited longer than three hours, the airline could be fined.
The U.S. Department of Transportation law says passengers can't be on the runway any longer than four hours, and that food and water and working bathrooms have to be provided after two hours. It isn't clear if any violations occurred at Midway overnight.
"We flew in from Cancun to Denver. And then we were in Denver. Hopped on a plane at about 8:45 p.m., landed at Midway around midnight on Friday. It's about 3:15 a.m. right now, and we're just pulling up to our gate," Bryce Jakobs, passenger, said.
"I've been camping out in my car. Thank God I got a full tank of gas before I came. Not very comfortable here," Joseph Ryne, picking up a passenger, said. "I've tried to call Southwest, and the phone lines were an hour. I gave up."
On Friday morning, Southwest officials released a statement that read, in part, "All flights have arrived safely at the gates at Midway. There were several flights with three-hour delays. Our number one priority is the safety of customers and employees."
The airline encouraged passengers traveling on Friday to check southwest.com for latest information on delays and flight status.