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‘I have no place to stay’: 72-year-old woman stranded at BWI after Southwest canceled her flight. She’s in good company.

This wasn’t how Pamala Shelby wanted to spend Christmas.

The 72-year-old Alabama woman was supposed to reunite with her siblings in Ohio for the first time in two years. Her youngest son bought her plane tickets as an early Christmas present. There was going to be a potluck dinner with nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

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Instead, Shelby found herself caught up in a massive wave of cancellations by Southwest Airlines. She arrived Christmas Eve at BWI Marshall Airport for what was supposed to be a short layover on the way to Columbus. She ended up spending her Christmas in the airport, sleeping on whatever chairs were available — with no food, no family and no luggage.

“They delayed it twice [Dec. 24] and then they said, ‘No, it’s canceled.’ They booked me on another one for later that evening, and that one was canceled,” Shelby said. “Sunday, the same thing. ... I’ve had four, five, six cancellations since I’ve been here.”

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Southwest Airlines canceled more than 5,000 flights Monday and Tuesday, stranding passengers like Shelby in airports and unfamiliar cities across the country. The issue was especially acute at BWI, which is a Southwest hub and a common layover for Southwest passengers. Most of the planes touching down and taking off at BWI on any given day are Southwest flights. The airline canceled 272 flights at BWI on Monday and 221 flights as of 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Shelby has been living in the lobby of BWI with only a small tote bag and her purse. Her clothes and medication are in her luggage. One bag made it to Columbus, she said, but she doesn’t know where the other one is. Shelby said she has spent hours standing in line, as flights keep getting canceled and rebooked.

Southwest passenger Pamala Shelby, 72, of Alabama, has been stranded since Saturday at BWI Marshall Airport.

At this point, she’s no longer going to Ohio. She’s just trying to get back to her home near Mobile. But the earliest flight Southwest offered is Saturday — and she’s skeptical that flight will ever take off.

The cancellations of Shelby’s flights came after an Arctic cold front blew across the country, bringing freezing temperatures, icy conditions and, in some areas, several feet of snow. Flights were disrupted nationwide amid a busy holiday season.

But while other airlines recovered, Southwest is still grappling with a massive number of cancellations days after the end of the storm.

The U.S. Department of Transportation called the rate of cancellations “disproportionate and unacceptable” and said the agency will be scrutinizing the Dallas-based airline.

In Congress, the Senate Commerce Committee also pledged to investigate, with two Senate Democrats calling on Southwest to offer “significant” compensation for stranded travelers. They said the airline has the money because it plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month.

Lyn Montgomery, president of the Transport Workers Union representing Southwest flight attendants, was also scheduled to talk Tuesday with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has criticized airlines for previous disruptions and is now taking an interest in Southwest’s woes.

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”I’m taking it to the highest level — that is how done we are,” said the frustrated Montgomery. “This is a very catastrophic event.”

The Holiday Inn Baltimore BWI Airport, about a mile and a half from BWI, saw lots of last-minute bookings over the weekend as stranded passengers scrambled to find lodging. General Manager Grace Scott said the hotel was “pretty much booked out” from Dec. 22 through Christmas.

“We had that all weekend, people missing the holidays with their family,” she said. The hotel hosted some Southwest crew members, as well.

Now, the Holiday Inn has the opposite issue. There are plenty of rooms available as travelers who were planning to stay in Baltimore this week can’t catch a flight into town.

“Today, it’s more cancellations of reservations,” Scott said.

Brian Frecker opted to sleep at the airport. He arrived late Monday evening at BWI to find his connecting Southwest flight to Columbus was canceled. The airport was empty, he said, and there was no one to ask about hotel vouchers.

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Brian Frecker arrived late Monday evening at BWI Marshall Airport to find his connecting Southwest flight to Columbus, Ohio, was canceled.

“I just found a spot to lay down, didn’t sleep real good, but shut my eyes,” Frecker said.

Frecker, a regular Southwest customer, said the airline canceled the charge on his credit card and that gave him a $250 voucher for a future flight. The airline later told him he could rebook his flight Saturday at the earliest. But he’ll be leaving Baltimore sooner than that — his brother, who lives in Virginia, has volunteered to drive him to Columbus.

Shelby was not so fortunate.

“It’s hard. Very hard. … I don’t hold a grudge on them. It just hurts because I’m stuck here,” she said, tearing up. “I have no place to stay, [I] know no one around here. It’s an experience to go through on your own when you’re that old.”

Shelby was also given vouchers by Southwest for her canceled flights, but she said she would have much rather spent Christmas with family.

It seemed to her that Southwest had stretched itself too thin this holiday season.

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“I know they couldn’t help the weather that caused the first part of [the cancellations], but the overbooking, I mean ... ” Shelby said, her voice trailing off. “They need to be a little more careful.”

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Southwest spokesman Jay McVay said at a Tuesday news conference in Houston that cancellations snowballed as storm systems moved across the country, leaving flight crews and planes out of place.

“So we’ve been chasing our tails, trying to catch up and get back to normal safely, which is our No. 1 priority, as quickly as we could,” he said. “And that’s exactly how we ended up where we are today.”

As of Tuesday, the chaos seemed certain to continue. Nationwide, the airline scrubbed 2,500 flights for Wednesday and nearly 1,400 for Thursday as it tried to restore order to its mangled schedule.

Shelby was expecting to spend four more days in BWI’s lobby. But she might leave sooner, thanks to Jennifer Martinez of Baltimore County. Martinez said she saw Shelby being interviewed on a TV newscast and knew she had to act.

Martinez came to the airport, met Shelby, and is helping get prescriptions filled at a nearby pharmacy. Martinez said she’s also trying to get Shelby booked on an earlier flight through Delta Air Lines.

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“I know what it’s like to be stranded. I’ve been stranded in the airport,” Martinez said. “If I didn’t do something? It would just sit on my heart. … It’s about giving back.”

Jennifer Martinez, right, of Baltimore County heard about Pamala Shelby's story and went to BWI Marshall Airport to help her fill a prescription and try to get her a flight on Delta Air Lines.

Baltimore Sun reporter Amanda Yeager, photographer Kevin Richardson and The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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