Stranded prep debate teams find their angel in Southwest

HARLINGEN — Airlines, you may have noticed, have not had a good year.

Passengers fighting passengers, or crew, customers being pulled from their seats, and so on.

This isn’t that kind of story.

A group of 45 high-schoolers, up well before dawn Sunday morning, boarded a Southwest Airlines flight at Valley International Airport bound for Houston and eventually Chicago.

Then they found themselves trapped at the gate due to mechanical issues with the plane.

On the plane were two rival debate teams, the Tip of Texas team from the Lower Valley, and the Rio Grande Valley team from the Upper Valley. They finished first and second in the 2017 Texas Great Debate in Sherman earlier this month.

The crack debate teams, by the way, are usually first or second, trading honors for first place back and forth.

After Sherman, it was on to the week-long National Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session at Elmhurst College near Chicago sponsored by the National Hispanic Institute, a youth leadership organization.

“We were all really tired first of all, because we had all gotten up at 4:30 to make our flight,” Gisele Sampayo of Olmito said yesterday by phone from Illinois. “When they told us it was canceled, we were really sad because we thought we were going to miss out on the first day of the program.

“We were a really confused bunch of 16-year-olds,” Gisele said.

But their plane, the one flying them to Houston to pick up the flight to Chicago, wasn’t going anywhere.

“We got there and they just had an announcement and they said they couldn’t find the correct battery for the plane, so it was going to be a two-hour delay,” said fellow student Jimena Trevino of Brownsville. “Then they said they got a battery, but it was the wrong one.”

So suddenly Southwest is sending out a text message that the 6:20 flight is canceled entirely.

“We’re going, ‘Oh, no! How can this happen?’” said Jennifer Sampayo, Gisele’s mother.

“I told my husband they’re looking for another plane to take them to Chicago,” Jennifer said. “He said, ‘That is never going to happen.’”

Never, as they say, say never.

“Southwest basically chartered a flight for them!” Jennifer wrote on her Facebook page. “With so many negative airline stories floating around, I thought I’d share a positive one.”

Southwest Airlines’ rescue of the 45 high-schoolers enabled them to fly directly to Chicago, bypassing a plane change in Houston.

“They told us around 8:40, ‘Hey. Look, we got you guys a direct flight to Chicago,’” Gisele said. “We were all extremely impressed because that’s crazy to just take a bunch of kids to Chicago.”

They arrived about two hours late, but all things considered, nobody was complaining.

For their part, officials at Southwest said as soon as they realized the scope of the problem, they buckled down to work.

“We found that many people who were scheduled to connect in Houston would miss their connections because of the cancellation and additional weather concerns,” Dan Landson, a Southwest spokesperson, said via email. “We looked at where everyone was traveling and found that it would be easier to get everyone to Chicago first and then to their destinations.

“We made the decision that it would make for a better customer experience by offering the flight to Chicago, allowing customers an easier way to get to their destinations and at the same time getting the group of students to their event in Chicago,” he added.

“It takes a true team effort to make these decisions and we’re glad we could help everyone out,” Landson said.

But the good in this story doesn’t end even there, participants in the tale say.

“They gave all of us a $100 voucher for our next Southwest flight,” Jimena said.

“We got really lucky,” Gisele added.