When it comes to major weather problems, I’m a pretty forgiving person. Weather wreaks havoc on an airline, and recovery can be really difficult. But even if it takes a week, it’s still important for an airline to make sure it completes its recovery by getting everyone where they need to be. Sun Country failed that test this weekend when it stranded scores of passengers in Mexico. I hoped the airline would change its mind, and I reached out for comment today thinking maybe it would have. But even in the face of widespread (well-deserved) criticism, Sun Country has stuck to its guns. And for that it gets the Cranky Jackass award.
Let me set the scene here a bit. A bunch of pale Minnesotans hopped on an airplane to fly down to Cabo and Mazatlán to catch some sun. Spring break is over, and Sun Country is getting ready to pack it in for this year’s season before moving airplanes to different markets. But in the dying days of winter, there are still Minnesotans looking to escape.
While they’re there, Mother Nature gets involved. She says, “You think winter’s over? HELL NO. I hope you like Dairy Queen, because it’s BLIZZARD TIME!” And Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP), home of Sun Country, gets absolutely walloped with a late season storm. I’ll let Sun Country’s VP of Marketing Kelsey Dodson-Smith tell you just how bad it got for the airline.
MSP was closed to all arrivals and departures for a total of 9 hours on Saturday causing us to cancel 25 flights, combined with other carriers, the cancellation count came to 495. Network disruptions continued into Sunday due to weather challenges and runway closures at the airport. We had to cancel 15 of our flights, 315 flights were cancelled in total.
We understand that it has been difficult to call through to our reservations call center based on the significant increase of call volume and recognize the hold times are unacceptable. Our staff continues to work around the clock to reduce the call volume and assist every passenger affected by the extreme weather. We continue to staff to the fullest in an effort to decrease the wait time and assist our passengers as soon as possible. Some of our agents have literally worked from one day, through the night, and into the next to help passengers and to cover for colleagues who were unable themselves to get to work due to the storm.
Long hold times, canceled flights, rolling delays. I get it. It’s really uncomfortable, and people will have their plans disrupted, but that’s just life when weather hits the one hub of a small airline, especially a newly-minted ultra low cost carrier. There isn’t the same capacity to recover as there is with the bigger guys. None of that is Jackass-worthy, but wait, there’s more. Remember those people in Mexico? They were supposed to come home during the blizzard, but instead, flights were canceled and their options were… well… I’ll let Kelsey describe it from here.
Our most challenging recovery situation remains to be our Los Cabos and Mazatlán flights and we cannot apologize enough to those passengers who were hit by the one-two punch of an April snow storm and the seasonality end date of our winter schedule. Our fleet was already allocated to fly other operations and unfortunately, we were unable to send additional aircraft to Los Cabos and Mazatlán without cancelling more flights causing further disruptions to more of our passengers. We felt the best option for these passengers was to provide them a full refund on their airfare so they could get on their way as quickly as possible. If their tickets were booked directly with us, the refund is being automatically credited back to their account. If passengers booked through a travel agency or online travel provider, we are working with those partners to assist with those refunds. Sun Country may take up to 7 days to process the refund. Dependent on the passenger’s bank it may take longer for the refund to be reflected in the passenger’s account. We have expedited processing these refunds ahead of all others.
That’s right. Sun Country has its fleet flying hard, and it doesn’t have the slack to send a rescue mission down to pick up those people who are stuck. So what did it do? It just punted. That is not a solution. People who likely got a bargain flying at the end of the season were now told to go buy a ticket on another airline out of pocket. You can be sure they had to pay a whole lot more than they did in the first place. Of course, a refund should be an option for people who need to get home. But Sun Country should provide more options for those where cost is a greater concern.
I sent follow up questions asking if the airline had thought about other options, but I didn’t receive a response before publishing. Here are just a few of the things Sun Country could have done.
- Find some spare aircraft time and send a rescue mission. I know, Sun Country says it has no spare aircraft time. But guess what? You can cancel one of the three daily flights to Vegas and reaccommodate those passengers so you can send a plane to rescue the Mexican tourists. There has to be some way to make this work.
- Charter a plane. This isn’t cheap, but it’s an option. If the airline wanted to prove it was the ULCC with a heart, then this would have given good press for miles.
- Put people on other airlines. It’s true, the big guys don’t have interline agreements with Sun Country, so the airline would have to just pay for tickets out of pocket on most. But Sun Country does have an interline agreement with Alaska, and Alaska flies to both of those places. This seems like a cheap solution for Sun Country, especially in Cabo where Alaska has a lot of flights back to the US (if not Minneapolis) and a lot of seats available to sell in the next few days. Mazatlán is tougher since Alaska has much less service, but it’s still an option that could be offered to some people. But Sun Country could have just bought the tickets outright. Maybe, what, $150,000 total to do that? It’s worth it.
Update 4/18: Sun Country has emailed me to tell me that it no longer has an interline agreement with Alaska. Sabre, however, continues to show it as being active. Alaska has confirmed it is still in force through April 30.
I don’t know why Sun Country has decided that the “best option” was to give no option. But you would think the airline would be more sensitive to its public persona right now as it morphs from a well-liked hometown carrier with a Minnesota attitude into an ultra low cost carrier. That move made sense to me, but part of the pitch was that the airline was going to keep that “Minnesota nice” attitude. This says very loudly, very publicly, otherwise.
UPDATE: On April 17, at 1:27pm CT, CEO Jude Bricker sent this note to employees with more detail. The airline has decided to reimburse the costs of travel for the people stuck in Mexico.