Christine L. Peterson: CHRISTINE When airlines fail, real families are hurt

Jan. 1—Matthew's craft project said it all.

"Dear Santa, For Christmas I want to see Grandma Cathy. Sincerely, Matthew."

Matthew is my incredible 11-year-old nephew, who, at least for the foreseeable future, has little hope of boarding an airplane. For an autistic child who relishes half-hour car rides multiple times a day, air travel would just be too much.

But never fear: Grandma Cathy and Auntie Christine can board a plane to Milwaukee.

While initially ambivalent about traveling this holiday season, I changed my thinking. After my Mom suffered a traumatic brain injury in May, I realized it was my mission to ensure she saw her only grandchild for Christmas. She'd been asking for months.

And we tried. Oh, Lord, did we try.

By now the entire country has heard of the epic meltdown of Southwest Airlines. The initial weather woes morphed into something entirely different: utter chaos seemingly brought on by outdated technology that left hundreds of thousands stranded with no hope of arriving anywhere.

My mom and I boarded a plane in San Diego bound for Phoenix, continuing on to Milwaukee, on Christmas Eve morning. We'd be there in time for a lovely lasagna dinner, Matthew's sheer excitement to see us and perhaps a little indoor basketball, Matthew's favorite sport. Until we weren't. After landing in Phoenix, there would never be a flight to Milwaukee. Canceled. The only hope was a "waitlist" flight that would arrive close to midnight. We might not be the lucky ones to board. But nobody boarded. Canceled.

I stood in a line of 100-plus people with one ticket agent to see what we could do. We have something! On Christmas Day, we could fly from Phoenix to Las Vegas, then Las Vegas to Milwaukee. My sister moved Christmas to Dec. 26.

In the meantime, we'd struggle to make our way to a hotel. I finally found one, with a "free" shuttle to get us there. Except my mom couldn't get onto the van, despite a hurried driver who somehow thought it would be a good idea to try to shove her in. I used my entire body weight to prevent my mom from falling, walked away and paid for a taxi to arrive at a less-than-impressive hotel. At least we'd be safe and I could remove my sweater, intended for the freezing temperatures of Milwaukee, not the heat of Phoenix.

I sat down to a dinner of chicken-flavored Cup Noodles, Doritos, Vitamin Water and a Coca-Cola at 11:50 p.m. on Christmas Eve, while my mom ate the grapes and pumpkin bread our friend had packed for us.

My mission was to ensure the safety of my mom, who uses a walker on a good day and a wheelchair in airports. Of course, the wheelchairs belonged to the airports and her walker was in the checked baggage — flying to who knows where.

We woke up Christmas morning and I collected some items from the "free" hotel breakfast. The cold eggs at least had some nutritional value. I had to beg for some milk, as the carafe was empty despite there remaining a half an hour for the breakfast service, and the employee surely wanted to go home to her family.

Off we went, back to the Phoenix airport by taxi, to await the flight to Las Vegas, which was delayed, delayed and then delayed some more. Did I say more? It was an utter joke to receive Southwest Airlines texts throughout this nightmare saying "your flight has been delayed to ..." hours after the time listed in the text, and, in fact, when flights had already been canceled.

May we have a hotel voucher? No. Something for food? No. It's all weather-related, counter agents say, so you get nothing. Nothing.

To think it was just the passengers who were suffering would be mistaken. Flight attendants trying to confirm working a flight remained on hold on the phone for five hours, as their check-in app apparently wasn't working. We kept hearing that flight attendants and pilots had to be "legal" to fly, meaning cleared for a particular flight with proper documentation, and for safety, it was still within 12 hours of the start of their day. Baggage claim agents were exasperated and weary. Many employees tried to smile as they said they'd never seen anything like this in their decades-long careers. These fine employees were universally suffering, the pain apparent on their faces, as they tried to hold themselves up and said they felt terrible for their customers.

We eventually boarded that plane to Las Vegas, after pilot Brian Ducey took a particular interest in my mom. He may have seen her watery and red eyes. He may have seen her glance at a meter that monitors a medical condition. Or he may have noticed she wasn't so clear at that point — was anyone? Ducey wheeled my mom onto the plane himself. And after that plane eventually took off at 10:22 p.m., for a flight that was scheduled to take off at 3:50 p.m., the flight to Milwaukee was, of course, canceled.

Our flight journey had ended. Christmas was over. I frantically searched for, and found, a hotel that promised 24-hour availability of food — this was Las Vegas, baby! — and enjoyed what tasted like the most delicious meal on the planet via room service at 1:15 a.m. Monday. Note that on a good day, I have zero interest in spending a minute in Vegas.

The journey continued that day as I eventually found a rental car company that agreed to let me drop off the vehicle at San Diego International Airport — but nowhere else more convenient in San Diego County. The last woman I encountered at the Alamo checkout in Vegas warned that the road would be packed; every customer she'd helped that day was renting due to canceled flights. Mom and I arrived in San Diego County 10 1/2 hours later. The expected five-hour drive was, I believe, 70 percent wrought with drivers who'd actually planned a road trip to Las Vegas for the Christmas holiday and were returning to their Southern California homes, and 30 percent filled with no-go airline passengers forced to rent cars at their own expense.

I spent Tuesday, once again, at San Diego International Airport, trying to get our full $1,869.94 in plane tickets refunded. But, you know, I am a "complicated" case because I "chose" to fly some of the route. Yes, only because you, Southwest Airlines, told me where to go to get to Milwaukee when it was all a farce, and now our luggage might (or might not) be reunited with us in weeks, with a none-too-pleased agent exasperated that mine would need to be delivered to me in Bakersfield.

We experienced so much ugliness: The counter agent who, with a deadpan face, told my mom she could call 911 if she had a medical problem, but then she couldn't get on a plane. (My mom did not have a medical problem requiring emergency services or anything beyond what she handles herself.) Dirty looks as I tried to maneuver Mom through the airports in a wheelchair.

But I also experienced and observed acts of pure love: The woman who walked ahead of the wheelchair to clear a path out of the tight fit of a restroom. The well-to-do woman who was trying to find a flight on a different airline for a veteran with PTSD for whom she'd pay the way. A woman accompanying a blind woman (they appeared to be mother and daughter) buying a bottle of water and bringing it to an agitated, elderly man in a wheelchair who was traveling alone. A companion to a developmentally disabled man of about 18 years in a wheelchair using expert skills to communicate with his friend. A friendly lady of about 30 years with whom I struck up a conversation as I gazed at her lovely cat Maggie, missing my own Tanner and Timber. And above all, the kindness pilot Ducey showed my mom.

As my sister said, Mr. Rogers always told us to "Look for the helpers."

There were some good helpers.

As I sit here penning this experience at 10:42 a.m. Thursday, I just received a text from Southwest Airlines telling me we have been rebooked on a flight to San Diego departing from Phoenix at 6:45 a.m. Friday. Remember, Southwest already knows we flew on their plane to Las Vegas, as instructed. Southwest already knows I spent 5 1/2 hours in the San Diego airport on Tuesday trying to get a refund and tracking our baggage. It's documented.

This will be worked out. The U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating. Congress is talking. And most importantly, Christine Peterson does not give up. I will get a full refund of our nearly $2,000 in tickets. I will get a refund of the roughly $1,000 I have spent to pay for hotels, food and transportation to get us safely to California. I will be reimbursed for this trauma, a word that I do not use lightly.

In the meantime, a little boy in New Berlin, Wis., waits for Grandma Cathy and Auntie Christine. It will be a little longer, Matthew. Maybe you'll have to write to the Easter Bunny.

Christine L. Peterson is executive editor of The Bakersfield Californian. She can be reached at