As United Airlines flights resumed this morning after a "network connectivity" problem disrupted service Friday night, the airline acknowledged that delays could persist through the weekend.
The unspecified computer issue was fixed early Saturday, but with thousands of passengers stranded or otherwise affected and flights already near full, there was little room for passengers to rebook.
"There's literally nowhere to put them," airline analyst Robert Mann said. "There are already very few empty seats on the flights that operate."
On the ground lines of passengers with their luggage snaked around O'Hare's Terminal 1, the United terminal, as passengers scrambled to get on flights.One of those in line was Gary Ward, 61, who said he had been stranded at O'Hare since early Friday afternoon, when he arrived from Cincinnati to connect to a flight to his hometown of Portland, Ore.
He boarded a plane at 4 p.m., but the plane returned to the gate and all the passengers disembarked, awaiting instructions on what to do next, he said. After spending most of the night running from one gate to another, passengers were told around midnight to book hotel rooms. United employees said they could not print hotel vouchers because of the computer problems, so passengers were told to submit their receipts to the airline for reimbursement.
"This is the third line I've been in today," Ward said, trying to catch a flight scheduled to leave in an hour, even though he was far from the front of the ticketing line. "I have no idea where my bags are."
Mary Kelley was one of a group of four people who were supposed to leave for Ireland on Friday to begin a week-long vacation. Instead, she and the rest of her group were taking turns standing in line today at O'Hare, trying to make sure they were all booked on the same flight.
Kelley and several other travelers said United did not have enough customer service employees at the airport and said they had spent hours waiting in line and calling the airline without success.
"We'll never fly United again," said Kelley, 53, of Madison, Wis. "Never ever. We will avoid it at all costs."
Most passengers stuck between connecting flights at O'Hare today had no idea where their luggage was.
Karyn Halloran, who was traveling with her husband to Ireland from their home in Oregon, said she was frustrated that United employees at O'Hare hadn't been able to provide much information to stranded travelers.
"It's really unfortunate, but they need to know how to handle this," said Halloran, 63, sitting on a bench today while her husband waited in line trying to book a new flight. "They need a Plan B. These things happen, but it shouldn't result in this."
United spokesman Charles Hobart said late Saturday afternoon that the airline didn't expect to cancel any more flights this weekend due to the computer problems, though delays might continue.
To try to alleviate today's congestion, the airline is allowing passengers with tickets on Saturday flights to cancel or delay their travel to a later date without charge. Luckily, Saturday is one of the lighter travel days.
The United website suggested checking status online. The website also lists this phone number: 1-800-864-8331.
At 7:15 p.m. Friday a computer outage that the airline attributed to a "network connectivity issue" disrupted the airline's flight departures, airport processing and reservation systems, according to a statement from United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart.
By midnight, a technology team assigned to the problem resolved the issue through troubleshooting procedures, the statement said.
Customers on affected flights are allowed to cancel or rebook their itineraries without penalty, according to the airline's waiver policy.
United also is offering status updates through its Twitter page.
United passengers flying the rest of the weekend have been advised to print out their boarding pass at home instead of at airport kiosks. By 3 a.m. Eastern time, United had announced on Twitter that things were returning to normal: "Flight status and flight rebooking are fully refreshed on united.com. Thanks again for your patience." Officials did not elaborate.
The airline's customer service line at O'Hare was only four passengers long by noon, and United was letting people with tickets for travel Saturday change them for free to alleviate the crunch.
United didn't say how many passengers or flights were affected. But Los Angeles International Airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said the outage affected about 2,500 people at that airport alone.
David Williams of Evanston was one of hundreds of passengers who sat on an Italy-bound flight for five hours Friday night before being taken off the plane about 10:20 p.m. Word came two hours later that the flight was canceled.
Most frustrating, he said, was the lack of information from the flight crew who, like everyone else on board, were getting piecemeal information that was hard to distinguish from rumor. Williams called United customer service 24 times for updates.
The whole airline, it seemed, was paralyzed. "They were completely powerless," Williams said. "Nobody could do anything."
Nina and Mark Whitford of Brockville, Ontario, ended up in Chicago while on a layover on their flight home from Minneapolis. They said they were headed to a hotel to spend the night and were dismayed when an airline worker told them they would have to mail in their hotel receipt to get reimbursed.
"We've been waiting here for about two hours for our baggage, and nothing's come," said Nina Whitford, 35.
She said several people were still at the airport around 1 a.m. CDT Saturday, and others on their flight had rented cars to complete their trip to Canada.
"Some people were sleeping and some people were getting very angry because no one was giving us any answers," she said.