Airline breakdown upends holiday leave for service members

Pfc. Amiah Manlove, left, who is stationed with the U.S. Army in Oahu, Hawaii, poses her mom Metika Beck Burke, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in New Whiteland, Ind. Active duty military personnel were caught in limbo as thousands of Southwest travelers stranded across the U.S. after waves of canceled flights. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Amiah Manlove used most of her savings to buy a $711 airline ticket to go home for the holidays. Then the Army private got stuck midway through the over 4,000-mile journey from Hawaii to Indianapolis and had to sleep on an airport floor.

Manlove, 20, an active-duty soldier stationed in Oahu, was among the many travelers whose holiday plans were upended when Southwest Airlines canceled wave after wave of flights across the country. Her father then spent his rent money to buy her a new flight after she was stranded at the Phoenix airport.

“This is the only time that I have to come home, the time we were going to cherish most for the next year — and to lose any of it is just devastating,” said Manlove, who was finally able to make it home the afternoon of Christmas Day. “They would have done anything in their power to get me home.”

Travelers who are in the military are often on fixed schedules that make it challenging to roll with the punches of chaotic airline breakdowns.

The Army typically shuts down basic training and advanced individual training schools for a 10-day break during the Christmas season. Active-duty soldiers can use some of their 30 days of accrued annual leave if they want to travel home during that period, but transportation costs aren’t covered.

While she was stranded, Manlove’s family searched frantically for solutions, and her father, a home health aide who relies on disability payments, used the $650 he saved for rent to purchase the only flight he could find — a one-way flight to Louisville, Kentucky, a two-hour drive from Indianapolis.

When he came to pick her up, they were so happy to be reunited that he was in tears before she opened the door to get in the car, she said.

“It was heartbreaking,” she said.

Manlove, who is scheduled to fly back to Hawaii on Sunday, said she has not been able to reach Southwest on the phone to get a refund. She called more than 10 times and reached out on social media. The airline expected to resume normal operations on Friday.

The family still doesn’t know how her father is going to pay rent, she said. For now, they’ve just been trying to enjoy the time they have together.

“It put a lot of stress on me because I have so many friends and family to see, and 10 days is not a lot,” she said. “It’s not like I can just call my leadership and be like, ‘Oh, hey, can I have some more time?’ That’s not how that works.”

“I’m sure their hearts would be just as heavy as mine, telling them what happened, but I have a duty and a job to do, and I can’t spend all the time in the world here at home.”

Crystal and Steve Molidor in Trout Creek, Montana, said they’ve been waiting 15 months to see their son, who serves in the Air Force and just returned to the U.S. from being deployed. He is now stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and his mother said his flight home on Southwest Airlines has been canceled at least four times already.

“We lost four plus days and Christmas with him due to their complete incompetence,” she said. “We can’t extend his trip because he can’t change up his leave dates at this point.”

Crystal Molidor said she was on hold with Southwest for six hours Tuesday night and into the early hours of Wednesday morning trying to reach a customer service representative, but wasn’t able to get through to anyone. When she woke up Wednesday, she tried again but gave up after a few more hours of silence.

She said the family finally decided to spend a couple hundred dollars to schedule a flight home for him on a different airline for Thursday, she said.

“I know this isn’t a lot of money — it’s more the stress they’ve caused our family and the principle of it,” she said. “To continue to let people rebook instead of looking at other options when they knew the flights would be canceled is wrong. Had they been honest upfront, we could have gotten him here a few days sooner.”

“I’ll just be glad when he’s home,” she said.

Veterans have faced their own challenges. Air Force veteran Kevin Moffitt was finally able to schedule a flight home to Atlanta for Thursday after being stuck since Monday in Philadelphia, where he flew last week to visit family for Christmas.

The 51-year-old, who served in Afghanistan and now works in law enforcement, said the delays caused him to miss work and a long-awaited appointment for a scan he needs for back pain at the veteran’s hospital.

He said he had to spend $579 with Delta for his new flight after being rescheduled multiple times by Southwest. He said he tried calling Southwest five times to discuss a refund but to no avail. On Wednesday, he received an email from the airline telling him he was getting a $15 refund with no context explaining what it was for.

Meanwhile, he’s been paying to park his car at the Atlanta airport on top of a $50-a-day charge to board his dog.

But he said his biggest concern was that he ran out of medication he relies on to treat his PTSD. When he misses a day, he experiences nausea, vomiting and severe headaches, among other symptoms.

“Hopefully nothing goes wrong,” he said of his next flight. “I’m hoping and praying nothing happens.”


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