Deborah Rombaut was not at Sacramento International Airport to make friends. She just wanted to get home to Los Angeles.
But the mass cancellation of Southwest Airlines flights, which has left thousands of travelers stranded in airports and hotel rooms across the country, had a silver lining for Rombaut.
The day after Christmas, after her second Southwest flight was canceled, she met three other women hoping to head to Southern California.
The quartet rented an SUV and drove eight hours to Hollywood — with a surprise pit stop at a home in Stockton, where they loaded up on macaroni and cheese, collard greens and energy drinks.
“It was just women helping women,” said Rombaut, who, coincidentally, acted in a Southwest Airlines Super Bowl commercial in 2008. “It is a heartwarming story in terms of us helping each other out and making new connections.”
After learning that her 10:15 a.m. Monday flight from Sacramento to Hollywood Burbank Airport had been canceled — a makeup for her Christmas Day flight, also canceled — Rombaut tried to book a rental car from a seat at her gate.
Next to her, Joan, 75, was waiting for her Southwest flight to San Diego — also canceled.
“She probably would have stayed at that airport for days on end until they finally flew her,” Rombaut said. “And I was like, ‘Well, if you wanna go, I’m leaving now.’”
And then there were two.
Scouring the “bag graveyard” for Rombaut’s luggage, they met another woman, Debbie, 65, who said she could help drive. She lived in Los Angeles as well.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, come with us,’” Rombaut said.
And then there were three.
The trio headed to the rental car area, where hundreds of desperate people were trying to secure cars. A helpful Enterprise rental agent named Ebony set them up with an Infiniti QX80.
The fourth and final member of the crew, Jayme Ritchie, 44, was also waiting for a car.
“I was literally hopeless,” she recalled. “I was talking to Debbie. I asked them where they were going, and they said they were going to Los Angeles. I said I was going to Orange County. I don’t know if I asked them or if Debbie just kind of knew I needed help. They just were wonderful.”
The four women — who had been scheduled that day to take flights from Sacramento to Hollywood Burbank Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Long Beach Airport and San Diego International Airport — got in the car and headed south. It was around 4:15 p.m.
They were brought together by their anger with Southwest, their fatigue and their gratitude at no longer being inside an airport.
When Debbie saw a sign for Stockton, she told Rombaut to pull off the freeway.
“Debbie says, ‘My sister lives here. I have mac and cheese left over.’ She phones her sister, gets her address and says we’ll be there in five minutes,” Rombaut said.
“The stop in Stockton was surreal. I was like, am I really here in your sister’s house in Stockton? It was so crazy, but they were so welcoming and nice,” said Ritchie.
They met Debbie’s mother and her two sisters. They ate, then got back on the road. Rombaut drank a couple of energy drinks to keep her going.
“We talked about our families and a lot of stuff. We were driving for eight hours,” Rombaut said. “I was grateful not to be by myself. We all were. We all helped each other.”
The four made it to Rombaut’s home in Hollywood, where they called Lyfts to take the other three to their destinations.
They were glad to have made the best of a terrible situation.
“I’m grateful to have made the acquaintances and that I was able to make it as positive an experience as it could be. But I still have a headache,” Rombaut said.