As the classic tale goes, Santa Claus found himself waiting in line at the Avis check-in desk after finding out his sleigh—er, airplane—was grounded until New Year’s Day.
After navigating his own yearly logistical nightmare of delivering gifts to the world’s children, he was on track to make it home just in time for Mrs. Claus’s famous Christmas dinner. Until old software and bad weather got in the way.
Santa—aka John Williams from Oregon, a professional mall Santa Claus—spent Christmas at San Jose International Airport instead, along with droves of other Southwest Airlines travelers who were left stranded after the airline abruptly canceled nearly 3,000 flights over the holiday.
For three days and two nights, Williams waited and slept on the hard floor of the terminal, believing his flight home was going to be called up next.
“The planes were here, but it was just a logistical nightmare,” Williams said. “One time, we had pilots but no flight crew, and then another time, it’d be the opposite.”
As each day turned into night, the 62-year-old was hopeful the airline could compensate him with a hotel or food voucher. “But they just ran out,” he said.
Southwest announced Monday it will only fly about one-third of scheduled flights over the next several days, which meant that the earliest day the airline could fly Williams home would be New Year’s Day.
He finally decided he could drive home faster.
Williams and hundreds of other travelers spent their entire Wednesday morning waiting in line at the airport’s car rental lobby. Several customers told The Standard that the wait-time to see an agent was at least two and a half hours, irrespective of an online reservation.
Once they signed their paperwork, customers had to brave yet another long line at the car staging areas. Williams’s only ticket out of town ended up being a Toyota Camry—talk about a downgrade from Rudolph.
Since San Jose airport and Oakland International Airport are major Southwest hubs, the airline’s sudden failure has all but paralyzed air travel at both locations.
Unlike other major airlines, Southwest does not operate in partnership with other airlines to assist with re-bookings. It also offers competitive pricing by operating with fewer open seats or backup flight crews—leaving it little room for error.
A spokesperson from San Jose airport told The Standard: “There’s not much the airport can do at this point. […] Our team has been supporting Southwest heavily behind the scenes however we can. As always, we recommend all travelers—whether they are flying Southwest or another carrier—check with their airline before heading to the airport for the latest updates regarding their itinerary.”
So how did Santa spend his Christmas in San Jose? A stranded family on the same flight noticed him at the airport and invited him out for a tour of the Winchester Mystery House on one day and to dinner and a movie on another.
“The heated recliners [at the movies] were much needed,” Williams said with a jolly laugh befitting of his look. “They always make these terminals so damn cold.”
After finally getting the keys to a car that afternoon, he said he plans to drive 10 straight hours home.
“Hopefully, the fancy dinner my sweetheart made is still good,” Williams said. “I’ve been looking forward to that.”
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson urged passengers to use this link to check flight status and said: “We were fully staffed and prepared for the approaching holiday weekend when the severe weather swept across the continent, where Southwest is the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 travel markets in the U.S. These operational conditions forced daily changes to our flight schedule at a volume and magnitude that still has the tools our teams use to recover the airline operating at capacity.”