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Southwest Airlines meltdown left me stranded — and grateful

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I felt lucky when our flight landed in Dallas.

It was Dec. 21, and meteorologists were forecasting a winter storm that we’d later learn would leave more than 50 people dead.

My parents picked my wife and me up after our Southwest flight from Burbank landed perfectly on time at Dallas Love Field. Our four bags — checked free! — full of Christmas gifts arrived unscathed. The hardest part of the day was figuring out how to get out of the airport parking garage.

The next day when the wind chill was 14 below zero, we were cozy and safe inside my parents’ home in rural Oklahoma. We spent the following week visiting family we hadn’t seen since before the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a holly jolly time, losing to my cousins at dominoes and participating in our family’s annual (cutthroat) Dirty Santa game.

So many families weren’t so lucky.

Southwest canceled thousands of flights, likely affecting far more than 1 million passengers, according to the Associated Press.

Reports of stranded travelers told their flight might not be rescheduled for days, children sleeping on airport floors, and sobbing passengers unsure when they’d leave the terminal were an ironic Christmas gift from the airline that proclaims to love its passengers, has a heart-shaped logo and is traded as LUV on the New York Stock Exchange.

All was well for us until Tuesday, when I got four text messages about 3 a.m. from Southwest notifying me that our flight the next day from Dallas to Burbank was canceled. There was a link to reschedule, which I realized after my first cup of coffee.

My wife and I rushed to the Southwest website, where Southwest informed us that, if we didn’t want to be charged, we had to fly out of the same airport (Dallas) but could fly into multiple Southern California airports.

First, we checked Burbank, where no flights were available for days.

We noticed a few options available Saturday at LAX but wanted to check the rest of the airports, just to see if anything was available earlier. In those few minutes — when we briefly considered whether any of our friends would pick us up from Santa Barbara, only to find no flights available there — the flights out of LAX were gobbled up. A few random error messages later (who knows why), we had a flight into Long Beach on Saturday.

When I told my friends this, one mentioned, “Oh my God, the Long Beach airport is like a vacation unto itself,” noting its “luxurious outdoor spaces.” A more cynical person might snarl at such an observation, but I appreciated the silver lining.

After my brother died in 2018 from brain cancer, I reevaluated my life priorities and started more thoughtfully practicing gratitude. Often when I’m angry about something but realize I’m, perhaps, being unreasonable, I make myself note three things I’m grateful for. It almost always provides a mood boost.

And thus was my approach from Tuesday to Saturday when our trip to my childhood home was involuntarily extended. Located in a rural area, it’s a 20-minute drive — because of distance, not traffic — to anything beyond cattle pastures, churches, natural gas drill sites and one convenience store.

The best news was that our 6-year-old niece would be with us for the days we hadn’t planned to be there, which was an unexpected blessing. The sun came out, and we spent our days running around the yard pretending to be wizards, visiting our family’s lake, and playing with my parents’ pets, including the two kittens essentially dumped on their doorstep earlier in the year. One night, we played a board game that involves throwing fake burritos at each other. The niece liked that one, and was fairly good at tagging my mom.

Those are the memories we got to make because of Southwest’s failures. But for those stranded across the country, how many missed their grandparents’ last Christmas? How many missed a baby’s first holiday? These are precious family memories, often documented in multi-generational photos. How many families will have missing pictures in the family album from this holiday season?

It is possible to practice gratitude and be angry with Southwest — two things can be true at the same time.

While in the Dallas area, we found a truly epic playground in Plano, where our niece organized an obstacle course I was informed I’d be participating in (I lost, because I fell off a log into the lava). We visited our favorite vegan diner, where our niece stole most of the ice cream sundae we ordered.

Yes, we made even more memories with our favorite child on the planet, but my wife also missed three days of work in her hourly job. Because of how early the flight Saturday was, our family had to book an Airbnb — more money we didn’t plan to spend. And we were honestly stressed out about whether we could trust Southwest when it promised it was back to normal operations Friday.

When we arrived at Dallas Love Field about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, we were met with substantial crowds. We joined the growing line at the outdoor check-in after looking inside and seeing at least dozens of people already in line to check their (still free) bags. I squeezed my wife’s hand as I noticed her face grow more anxious. “We’ll get home,” I assured her, hoping I was telling her the truth.

We made it through security about 6:15 a.m., and landed in Las Vegas about 8:05 a.m. We stayed on the plane while everyone else departed and were among about a dozen passengers staying on for the next flight. At one point, the plane’s lights blinked, and I thought “Not today, Satan.” I tried to nap for that 45-minute flight home, but my mind was too busy.

I felt lucky when our flight landed in Long Beach.

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